Here’s How to Focus at Work Despite Political Polarization

February 27, 2017

With President Donald Trump refusing to stay out of the headlines, here's some advice for dealing with all the noise.

What’s on your mind?

Assuming you haven’t been living under a rock for the past month or so, it should be pretty easy to understand the subtext of that question. Sorry to disappoint, but political polarization and the news cycle that follows does not appear to be letting up anytime soon. Anecdotally, its effects on regular people seem quite apparent as well. Would you agree that the machinations and exasperations in the political world have trickled down to the workplace? Has it affected your productivity?

Again, I ask, what’s on your mind?

In Bourree Lam’s recent Atlantic article titled People Are Finding It Hard to Focus on Work Right Now, she covers a recent BetterWorks study that researches political polarization and its effects on productivity. According to the survey of 500 companies that Lam cites, 87% of workers reported reading and getting involved in a social media flame wars at work! 50% of employees reported witnessing a political conversation turn into verbal jousting match on company time.

Here’s the hidden cost: roughly 29% of US workers now say that their productivity has decreased since the election.

Now, let’s clarify something. Talking politics, even in the workplace, is democracy in action. Political “water cooler” conversations, while awkward, are not going anywhere, nor should they. In the modern workplace, where employee feedback is both crucial and mandatory, we need to allow for discussion of these issues rather than posting a “No Politics” sign just above the organic, fair trade, matcha tea dispenser in the company kitchen.

However, along with the modern workplace being a “safe space” to discuss politics, so too must employees remain productive and focused in an uncertain political climate. If they don’t, they may find themselves needing to focus on finding a new job.

In my last article, “Why Focus is a Must Have Skill for the 21st Century Workplace,” I discussed how little interruptions, whether it’s between coworkers or between our own ears, are assaulting our attention spans. It is crucial that we protect our attention and become more effective at using our time wisely. Our workplace climate may be more news-distracted than ever.

Here are some helpful tips, based on my LinkedIn Learning course “Improving Your Focus,” to help you maintain focus for at least the next four years…or more.

Feed Your Focus, Not Your Newsfeed

Technology can sure be useful. Unfortunately, constant access to each other through social media is also a leading cause of distraction. These days, political postings via social media are more like “politics as usual.” How can you expect to clear your email inbox when you absolutely must to respond to the thing that “Deplorable Debra” or “Resistance Randy” posted? The solution lies not with computer chips but, possibly the greatest invention of all time, the calendar. 

Schedule a reasonable amount of time on your calendar each day to execute a task like checking social media accounts. Then, set your phone, computer, and any other device to a “do not disturb” or “turn off notifications mode.” Not to worry. Your phone will be there when you finish.

Protect Focus by Building a Mental Firewall

So, we know how to turn off political updates, but how do I put a person in silent mode? While I advocate a “closed door, open calendar” policy, unless you barricade yourself in a bunker with bottled water and canned food, you’ll be unable to avoid the workplace “topic du jour.” So, the question becomes: how will you mentally process these ideas when they confront you? 

Create a list of topics, positive, negative, and otherwise, and list them under three simple YES, NO, and Maybe MAYBE columns. In the “YES” column list the things that are useful to discuss and think about in the workplace. These topics are typically positive things that seek to solve problems and are valuable to everybody. In the “NO” column, list the things that are pure distractions. Finally, in the “MAYBE” column, list the things that maybe on the table at a later date.

Once you complete your list, post it somewhere you can be reminded of it. Keep it as a totem you can return to at any time. You will, subconsciously, become wired to avoid the distracting thoughts in favor of more productive ones when you are “in the zone.”

Grow Focus by Returning to a Regularly Scheduled Broadcast

What replenishes and rejuvenates you? It might be as simple as listening to a Tom Petty song, watching a TV show, or just sitting and contemplating. However, for a great many, it’s catching up on the news cycle, reading the LinkedIn Pulse, the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, and maybe even engaging in some political back and forth on social media. I’m not in the business of trying to take those things away from you. If keeping an eye on the what’s happening in the “Situation Room” is what excites you and interests you, you should do it. I would only ask two things: schedule it and don’t multitask it.  

On your calendar, schedule fifteen to thirty minutes of political thought and/or shoptalk with yourself, with friends, or with trusted coworkers without engaging in work-related tasks. You’ll find that by separating these two aspects of your life, both will become far more enriching and productive.

Grow Personal Networks that Transcend Politics 

If you value the building of relationships, then you are not doing your inner-circle any favors by meeting them when you have other things on your mind, including politics. 

I think one of the best remedies to our current political climate is to build strong relationships with coworkers. Multitasking during a 1-on-1 meeting tells that person that your needs are more important than theirs. By scheduling time with others, you’re telling your coworkers, “I value you, no matter what.” While there is no cure for the common news cycle, the bonds of fellowship always triumph over what we see on TV. In other words, morale will overcome distraction.

You may have heard of a “5-year plan.” I use it all the time with my coaching clients. However, for this topic, you may benefit from a 100-Days in office plan, a Midterm Election plan, and 2020 election plan for the following question:

 What are you going to do to cut down distraction and focus on that which is most valuable?

David Crenshaw is the master of helping businesses conquer chaos and has appeared in Time magazine, USA Today, FastCompany and the BBC News. His LinkedIn Learning courses have been viewed millions of times, check them all out here.