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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Can’t Focus? Science Says to Blame the Person Sitting Next to You

Have you ever noticed how relocating to a conference room or coffee shop when you’re feeling unmotivated can help you focus on getting more of your to-do list tasks done? That might be because in those environments, everyone else around you is working, too. Turns out, when you really need to buckle down and get to work, who you surround yourself with matters.

The science certainly checks out. According to a study published by the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, putting in effort is infectious. When one person’s working hard, the people beside him also “exert more mental effort,” even if their tasks are different and easier to accomplish. “These results provide a first compelling demonstration that the exertion of effort is contagious,” the researchers say.

This conclusion probably makes sense to you, even if only on a subconscious level. If you’re the kind of person who needs a jogging buddy to stay on pace or a book group to keep you honest, you already know the power of community-level commitment.

Why not use this knowledge to your advantage when you’re feeling distracted? The psychological effect of positioning yourself near someone who is on task is what encourages people to be productive—together, even though the actual work is separate.

So, the next time you’re pressed for a final burst of energy and concentration to finish up the work day, consider moving away from the slacker who’s shopping online and toward someone who’s clearly absorbed in a project. The idea is that his or her focus will rub off on you.

Photo of open workspace Estelle Johnson/EyeEm/Getty Images.