I cannot focus at work, ever. How do I do this?
January 27, 2021 3:26 PM   Subscribe

Due to an ongoing personal issue, among other things, I have an extremely hard time focusing at work. I haven't been employed recently due to COVID and other reasons, but everything just becomes amplified when I am working. Life is infinitely easier when I'm not working. What are some tips, advice, etc. to manage this? Should I even be working? Realistically I need to make it at this job until August, but that seems like such an impossible task right now.

Please don't recommend therapy or medication as a means to focus on work. The ongoing personal issue is an ethics case against a therapist and therapy/meds is not a path that will be helpful or one I will be going down.

My work history is pretty spotty now. I was always able to focus on work previously, until the thing with this therapist happened. Even when I was dealing with just depression, anxiety, etc. I always had my focus on work. I had a stable job for years, and never jumped around. But now since leaving the job I was at for years...I worked for an employer for 3 weeks, another 3 weeks, managed to work somewhere for 4 months, then somewhere for 3 weeks, then laid off due to pandemic. After being laid off in March due to pandemic, I finally got a job in September that I worked at for 1 month and then left due to a mixture of not being able to focus and having an issue with the job.

Yesterday was my 2nd day at new job. My apartment lease goes until August, and I don't plan on remaining in current city/state past then, so I really just need to find a way to make this work until then. Working right now would mean the difference between running completely out of money and being pretty well financially come August, but even that isn't really motivation to focus at work.

I've been in the ethics case last March, and I'd say it's completely defined my life. When I'm not working...I wake up at 4am every day, since I can't sleep. Panic attacks, crying, etc. near daily. So far in my 2 days of work, things just amplify as I previously mentioned. It's not just that I'm newly back to work either...this is something that happens whenever I work, as seen in my work history in the past 1-2 years. I've had to go to the bathroom multiple times this week at work just so I don't go into a full-blown crying session in front of others.

How do I manage this, if at all? Are there things I can tell myself or things I can do in preparation of the work day to make it easier? It all feels extremely hard right now.
posted by signondiego to Work & Money (13 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Some people are extremely sensitive to sensory overload and random crying is a symptom of that. Work environments are a very natural place to experience sensory overload, especially when you have a lot of memories of work being stressful & unreliable. It could be you're stuck in a fear cycle where your brain has identified that you're again in a situation that was very scary and stressful last time, so we better get hyped up again to prep for whatever is happening this time. Hence the crying. It's your body trying to signal the other humans around you that the current situation isn't working for you in a major way and you need their help. I used to have random public crying jags all the time which therapy & antidepressants were useless for because I wasn't crying because of sadness, I just couldn't process the inputs. Once I became more in control of my day, they went away.

Can you brainstorm the situations at work where you feel overwhelmed? Is there loudness or extremes in temperature? Are you dealing with unpredictable members of the public? Is there a risk of COVID exposure you're dealing with? Basically I would want to know how can we remove the stress point that your system has alerted you to?
posted by bleep at 3:41 PM on January 27 [4 favorites]

Does it help to focus on micro-goals? Like, "Two hours and then I take a break" or "X minutes until lunchtime" etc.?

When I worked an absolutely dreadful job that I absolutely had to stay in, I would divide and re-divide the time often, even turning it into a math game in my head. (I'm not good at math so this would take up a lot of my focus, to my benefit.) I also liked to divide the time into specific increments of what I'd do with the money -- "The next hour is for the gas to fill up my car" and "If I get through today and tomorrow, the rent is sorted" and stuff like that.

I'm so sorry you're going through this!
posted by BlahLaLa at 3:43 PM on January 27 [10 favorites]

I’m sorry about your former therapist, but if you’re wanting to solve this long term, that’s probably going to have to be an option again. That said, in the short term, I’ve found that physical activity is a good way to stimulate my concentration. I set an Outlook reminder every morning to do some stretches, and then in the afternoon, if I have time and I remember, I do some air squats and desk pushups. When I sit back down at my desk, it’s easier to focus. You might also look into pomodoro. I don’t do it much anymore (maybe I should), but when I have, it’s been useful in terms of making the finish line seem closer. It’s easier for me to fill up 16 twenty-minute buckets than one eight-hour bucket.

Don’t worry about the crying breaks. People take breaks all the time. I bet most people don’t even notice. This is the kind of social anxiety thing where you think others care more about what you’re doing than they actually do. Hell, you’re probably not the only person in your office taking breaks to cry.
posted by kevinbelt at 3:43 PM on January 27 [3 favorites]

Is vigorous regular exercise an option for you? It's often recommended for anxiety.

I have a similar reaction to really bad stress: even if I can deal with it normally, something about the extra focus and performance anxiety that certain types of work entail (for me) bring out the underlying stress at full volume.

Do you have periods during the day when you're able to let go of the stress? Is there anything that lets you laugh or smile most days outside of work?
posted by trig at 3:47 PM on January 27 [3 favorites]

Seconding breaking time into small units. Like, five minutes at a time if you have to.

Both crying and exercise are sometimes described as ways of 'completing the stress response cycle'. Also listed are breathing exercises, which can be done in a toilet cubicle, or even at your desk, without making your face blotchy the way a crying jag does. There's a suggestion for a simple one on that link, or the Three Minute Breathing Space is often used for this - you can listen here and get a good enough idea of it to be able to do it for yourself.

You might find the first couple of episodes of the Feminist Survival Project podcast useful:

1. Separate the stress from the stressor
2. Complete the stress response cycle

In fact you might find other episodes useful, but they're the only ones I've listened to!

Best of luck.
posted by penguin pie at 3:58 PM on January 27 [1 favorite]

I don't know if this pushes the same buttons as therapy for you - if it does, please ignore and I truly apologize - but researching other typical approaches for treating anxiety or trauma on your own might bring up books or recommendations that might help some.

You asked for things you can tell yourself. One thing that does help me sometimes while working is to tell myself that I'm doing exactly what I need to be doing at the moment. I'm exactly in the place where I need to be and doing the exact thing that I need to be doing right then.
posted by trig at 4:02 PM on January 27 [2 favorites]

Pick a bad guy or a bogey man. "I'll show that therapist! I will work all day today. I will prove them." Pick someone or something to get mad about and how you'll show them wrong.
posted by AugustWest at 4:23 PM on January 27

You mention an ethics case against your previous therapist. This makes me think that maybe you have suffered a "moral injury" [Wikipedia link; not sure if it's that great, googling for stories may be more effective] -- basically when a person or system that you trusted to operate ethically and follow an operational code has betrayed that, causing harm, and it's not so much even the injury to you as the mockery of justice.

I had something like that happen to me a while back and I found that thinking about it in those terms, and *explaining it in those terms, in detail, to someone else* (in this case a one-off therapist, ha) helped me get past the sense of betrayal.
posted by heatherlogan at 4:25 PM on January 27 [3 favorites]

I would like to know more about the kind of work you’ve been doing. Some people who are dealing with trauma find jobs that are reactive (help desk, customer service) really hard but others find them easier because they’re not responsible for deadlines and mapping out plans but just responding. Others look for more solo jobs (night desk) others like to be around people (daycare). Some people can work obsessively for days for a short period of time (seasonal work.)

So if you can outline what your job is like that might help. If it’s an office type job, I would definitely:
- use headphones and play music you love
- take breaks and walk around, outdoors if possible, especially at lunch
- break everything into small goals
- orient your desk if you can do you feel good
- bring a picture or drape a sweater/scarf that is comforting
- buy/use really nice pens, apps, etc.
- have scents - teas, soap, etc. - that are soothing. I used to hear milk and put vanilla in it just for the smell.

On weekends take time to exercise, prepare simple healthy snacks, and *chill out* in whichever way works for you. Get as much sleep as possible. Spend as much time in nature as you can.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:29 PM on January 27 [2 favorites]

Can you gamify it? Spreadsheet, first column list of tasks, make it maybe as detailed as possible, e.g., get to work on time, turn on computer, check emails, respond to an email, call a client.

Column 2, weighting on level of difficulty, for the above list, 2, 1, 3, 4, 4,

Next column, date at top and then enter how many time you complete each task in first column.

Bottom (though I tend to stick it above the title row),
Total which is the sum of number of times you complete each task, x it's weighting. Each time you record a task complete, that number goes up.

If you are not familiar with spreadsheets, I'd be happy to create one for you in Google spreadsheets or Excel - message me, it won't take me long to put it together.

Then you can have all sorts of groovy graphs to show how many points you achieved each day, and what you do more of.
posted by b33j at 5:46 PM on January 27 [1 favorite]

For whatever it's worth, my number one go-to for staying focused at work is listening to continuous DJ mixes of electronic dance music.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 6:14 PM on January 27 [1 favorite]

Are you doing work that could possibly be done remotely? You might be able to focus better if you aren't in an office.
posted by pinochiette at 6:38 PM on January 27

With some practice, I learned to lower my physical stress response through breathing. I use the 4-7-8 method. It helps to think of your symptoms as your body responding in a way that was useful to our ancestors but is pretty useless in a modern world. This helps me to separate my physical response from my emotions and I can deal with them on separate terms.
posted by Fallbala at 7:00 AM on January 28 [2 favorites]

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