A few years ago, I was in a job that I enjoyed and dating someone who I was deeply in love with. I wanted for nothing and it seemed like all the pieces were finally falling into place. Then, everything fell apart as quickly as it had come together. I was left scrambling to rearrange the pieces of my life.
Grief took hold of me, my concentration and my mental focus. At first, I had trouble convincing myself to get out of bed in the morning, never mind think about tackling the long to-do list that was waiting for me at work. The distraction of heartbreak plagued me and was seemingly unbearable at the time. Despite my best efforts, I struggled to pay attention in meetings and to find energy to complete even the simplest tasks. But staring at my computer didn't help, and I still had a job to do. I knew I owed it to myself to march on and act like the professional I was, despite how difficult it seemed to be.
You might be the most focused, ambitious woman on this planet, but nothing can stop you in your tracks like grief can. Whether it's a breakup, a divorce or even the loss of a loved one, grief takes over. It reminds us that we are only human. The pain of such loss breaks mental focus and messes with your concentration — and your head.
So the question is, how do you move forward? Here's how to focus at work — if your job is something you still need or otherwise want to do — while prioritizing your health and healing.
1. Be gentle with yourself.
Grief is a normal, natural feeling after loss. Showing empathy to yourself is just as important as showing it to others; berating yourself for feeling sad will not help you to heal — or focus — any faster. You need to give yourself the care and attention you would give to another individual. It is normal for your mind to wander during this process, so gently redirect your thoughts back to the task in front of you as needed.
2. Focus on small tasks first.
It's often best to get the most difficult tasks out of the way, but that can feel overwhelming when you find yourself struggling to get through the workday. Don't hesitate to focus your work day around how you're feeling: schedule larger tasks for when you're most productive, but also make sure to complete smaller tasks early in the day. The simple act of checking items off of your to-do list can be motivating and help you to power through more difficult tasks that require additional time and concentration.
3. Avoid social media.
While social media can be a great networking tool, it can easily suck away at your time and attention span. The fear of missing out (or FOMO) is real, and it has an especially poignant effect when you're grieving. Social media can quickly pull you down the rabbit hole and deeper into despair if you're not careful. Plus, it's not likely to help your productivity when you're already having difficulty concentrating. Step away from the Instagram. Instead, find other activities that allow you to celebrate being with yourself. Meditation, going on walks and coloring in adult coloring books are some good starting ideas.
4. Take breaks when needed.
You might normally power through the day and barely leave your desk, but remember that it's important to take breaks always, especially when you're not feeling like your usual self. Rest your brain and detach from your work. Ideally, this means that you truly disconnect and leave your phone, email and major communication methods behind. Go for a walk, get some fresh air and just take a few minutes to collect yourself — and catch your breath. Taking a break will help you refine your focus point so you can focus on work as needed.
5. Practice self-care.
Self-care is always important, and it becomes much more necessary after any loss. When grieving, don't hesitate to comfort yourself. That doesn't necessarily mean enjoying your favorite comfort foods (though it can) Rather, it means that you should take a few minutes to do something nice for yourself. Treat yourself, whether it means splurging on a coffee from Starbucks or buying yourself a bouquet of flowers to brighten up your desk. Make sure that you set time for this and prioritize it.
6. If you have PTO or bereavement leave, use it.
So many workers are afraid to use the time they have, but remember that PTO exists for you to use it. Your brain could use the break, and your work, concentration and ability to stay focused will be better off in the long run. Working through a loss of any magnitude is a difficult process; time and privacy to grieve should be taken advantage of when needed and available.
7. Talk it out.
If you're comfortable talking to human resources, don't hesitate to sit with your HR representative and tell them you're going through a hard time. They may have some company resources they are able to offer, or maybe they can help you look at your current workload through a different lens. You are not obligated to tell your company every detail about what you're experiencing; only share what you're comfortable with. If at any point you feel that you're no longer in control of the conversation, it's okay to take a step back and gather your thoughts.
8. Ask for help.
If you feel overwhelmed, buried in work or are just having a brain fart, it's okay to ask your colleague for help with a project or two. If they say yes, thank them genuinely; it will go a long way in your workplace relationship. Be sure to offer to return the favor at some point down the road, when the roles are switched.
9. Take your time.
There is no user guide that says how long grieving is supposed to take. You may need a month or you may need a year to get back into a groove you're happy with. Take your time with each step in the grieving process, and don't feel the need to rush through anything.
Healing is a private, personal process that varies from person to person. Remember to be kind to yourself, and seek professional help if needed.