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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

How to Deal at Work When Your Mind is on Something Else

Over the past few months, I’ve planned a wedding, bought a house, and moved out of my apartment—all while working two jobs.

And so, during the workday, instead of focusing on my day-to-day responsibilities, it wasn’t unusual for me to actually be thinking about paint colors, honeymoon destinations, credit scores, event vendors, and endless paperwork. And that made it pretty hard to get any real work done.

When you have something big going on in your personal life, it’s nearly impossible to block it out from 9 AM to 5 PM. At the same time, you can’t let it take over your work life, distracting you from your responsibilities and tanking your performance.

Instead, I’ve found it best to somewhat meet in the middle. In a few small ways, it’s OK to give in to the distraction. Of course, it’s also important to learn how to stay strong and overcome the temptation to focus entirely on what’s going on outside of the office. Here are a few ways I do both.

Give In: Add it to the List

When I had a lot going on in my personal life, going to work didn’t exactly take my mind off of it—in fact, it did the opposite. I’d spend meetings mentally going over my never-ending to-do list; if I got a quiet moment at my desk, I’d forgo any focused work and start thinking about upcoming commitments, conversations I needed to have, and personal phone calls I should have returned last week.

When your mind is buzzing with outside distractions, it’s OK to indulge in a few minutes of planning to organize those thoughts and to-dos so that you can refocus on your job. But the key is to write it down with the purpose of getting it out of your mind and moving on to other (read: work-related) things.

For example, I started several ongoing to-do lists in the back of my work notebook. Then, whenever my workday got interrupted by my wandering mind (I need to buy stamps, track down those old tax returns, address invitations…), I’d jot it down on the list—to tackle later.

It’s a simple solution, but getting it out of your mind and onto paper will help you focus on what’s happening now—instead of what needs to happen tonight, tomorrow, and next weekend.

Stay Strong: Minimize Your Triggers

Whatever it is that’s distracting you, there’s probably something that triggers those feelings. Maybe it’s a text from your significant other, an email newsletter with tantalizing headlines (“The 25 Songs That Will Get Your Guests on the Dance Floor!”), or messages from friends on Facebook, asking if you’re OK or if you could use a drink at happy hour tonight.

Believe me, I know how it feels. The minute I got engaged, I was suddenly on a hundred email lists that I never signed up for, all of which sent me daily emails about cake flavors and honeymoon destinations. Seeing those emails first thing in the morning got me excited about planning a wedding—but certainly didn’t get me in the mindset to get some serious work done.

So, figure out how to minimize that trigger. Unsubscribe from those lists, save social media checks for your lunch break, or tuck your phone away in your purse or briefcase. Separating yourself from the things that spark your distraction will help you re-establish your workspace as a place you should be, well, working—instead of thinking about your life outside the office.

Give In: Let Yourself Have a Lunch Break

Take a glance around my office at noon, and you’ll see occupied desks, noses buried in work, and the occasional dejected Lean Cuisine, tossed aside after a few tasteless bites.

In other words, lunch breaks aren’t the norm.

When I was deep in the trenches of the house-buying process, though, I desperately needed that free hour to look at houses, gather and fax paperwork, and drive to my real estate agent’s office when I inevitably missed a signature line.

At first, I let that make me feel guilty. Here I was, traipsing around town, popping in and out of potential houses, while my co-workers kept their heads down and worked through lunch.

But eventually, I realized that if I didn’t get those tasks out of the way during my midday break, I’d spend my entire afternoon worrying about when I’d be able to get to them—and subsequently, get no real work done. In the end, allowing myself to use my lunch break however I needed helped me refocus for the rest of the workday.

Whether you need that hour to meet with vendors, stop by the post office, sign papers, or just vent to a friend, don’t feel guilty. It’s your lunch break—take advantage of it!

Stay Strong: Hold Yourself Accountable

One of my former bosses used to have me email him every Monday, outlining my focus for the week, which typically included two to three major projects or goals that I wanted to accomplish. On Friday, he’d check back in for an update. And knowing that a “So, where are you on your goals for this week?” was inevitably coming, I was much more apt to get my mind of personal issues and get my head in the game.

If you don’t want to make that kind of arrangement with your boss (or clue him or her in on what’s going on in your personal life), make a mutual agreement with a co-worker. Exchange lists at the beginning of the week, then chat over a cup of coffee on Friday about how you did. (Just make sure you pick someone who will hold you to your commitments—and not just reassure you that it’s OK that you spent the entire week browsing Zillow.)

Whatever you’re going through—whether it’s sad, exciting, distracting, or all of the above—it probably won’t stop running through your mind when you get to the office. But you know what? That’s just life. Manage that distraction with a few of these tips, and you’ll stay successful in and out of the office.

Photo of woman thinking courtesy of Shutterstock.