Professional Development

How to stay focused at work during the holidays

Written by Kate Lopaze

Every year, as the weather gets colder and holiday shopping ads start appearing on TV (though admittedly those start showing up around Labor Day now), even the most diligent and focused employees find their attention wandering a bit. There’s a lot going on—travel plans, potluck food appearing like magic in the office, everyone feeling a little more festive and social—and the daily grind can get lost in all of that. So how do you keep on top of your actual job, despite holiday disruptions?

Be prepared to shut out distractions.

This doesn’t mean you have to hunch over your desk like Ebenezer Scrooge, frowning disapprovingly at your cheerful slacker colleagues. It just means finding ways to keep your own attention focused on the daily tasks you need to accomplish. For some, that means wearing noise-canceling headphones while working on a project or setting blocks of “head down” time where you don’t allow yourself to be distracted by things like online shopping, social media, or extracurricular conversations with coworkers. It’s time to be honest with yourself and figure out what works best at keeping you on-task. If that means setting calendar reminders for everything, do it. If it involves using an app to keep you from wandering to particular distracting websites, go for it.

Try to avoid multitasking, because that can lead to…flexible attention span. If you’re giving all of your effort to a particular task, you’re more likely to get it done. Even if you’re usually an A+ multitasker, try to limit the number of things you’re doing at once.

Lean in to (some of) the distractions.

This may seem counterintuitive to #1, but it’s also important to embrace the non-work stuff as part of your day. It’s far more realistic to plan for small bursts of non-work activity than to think you’ll be able to shut it out completely. Be sure to schedule some breaks when you can check those flight prices or stop and grab a cookie with a colleague. If you start making the down time part of your workday (in small chunks), it’ll be easier to move from “holiday mode” back to “work beast mode.” Moderation is key here—it’s not an “hour of work, hour of goofing off” proposition. Think of it as more like a standard coffee break, but instead you’re taking a few minutes to check out your Facebook friends’ pets in various holiday sweaters.

Come up with a “rest of year” plan.

Chances are, your workload has a combination of things that will need to be accomplished either now or in the near future, and things that can reasonably wait until January. It’s time to sit down and make a comprehensive list of must-dos, should-dos, and can-do-laters. Your to-do list should be realistic and have milestones/deadlines included wherever possible so that you can plan your time. If you need to, talk through your end of year priorities with your boss to make sure you’re hitting everything you need to do before everyone checks out. This has the added benefit of showing your boss how organized and driven you are, even as everyone else might already be starting to slip a little.

While you’re making the list, also make note of what you’ll need from other people. This time of year people can be in and out of the office, so if there’s something important that you’ll need from Andy by mid-December, start thinking (and talking) about it now in case Andy’s planning on taking time off. If you’ve waited until the last minute and then you’re faced with Andy’s “Bye, see you next year!” Out of Office message, it’s too late.

Reset your work-life boundaries.

Setting a clear line between your work day and your personal time can help you stay focused at work if you know you can get all the fun stuff or personal logistics accomplished later. If you’re usually a “stay late” kind of person, start leaving at a set time every day. If you’re usually a “wander in a little late in the morning” kind of person, start putting in extra effort to get to work on time. And whenever possible, you should avoid taking work home—instead, set a realistic workload and to-do list for the official workday. That way, family/friend/personal time gets its own spotlight in your day, separate from work, and you’ll feel less inclined to “catch up” on the outside stuff while you’re at work.

Don’t forget to take care of yourself.

The time leading up to the holidays can often take a physical toll as well, if you’re indulging in special food, more drinks than usual, and/or later bedtimes to account for social activities. All of those can set you up for failure at work and make you feel lousy, so try to set up some extra healthy habits to compensate this time of year.

  • Take short walks and exercise breaks instead of coffee breaks.
  • Stay hydrated (and not with egg nog).
  • Practice some desk yoga.
  • Aim for half an hour more sleep.
  • Bring a healthy lunch so you can sneak in some extra calories later.

These can all help you feel better during the workday and more ready to devote your time and mental sharpness to accomplishing what needs to be done.

No matter what the distractions are between Thanksgiving and the New Year, staying organized is not a lost cause. It’s all about being realistic and developing some extra coping mechanisms to defeat those “it’s the holidays, woo!” impulses and stay productive. Fully embrace the good cheer of the season—just make sure it’s on your to-do list, next to all the other things you want to get done.

About the author

Kate Lopaze

Kate Lopaze is a writer, editor, and digital publishing professional based in New York City. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Emerson College with degrees in English and publishing, she is passionate about books, baseball, and pop culture (though not necessarily in that order), and lives in Brooklyn with her dog.