Problems at home? How to remain focused at work

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(MoneyWatch) In an ideal world, the minute we step foot into our offices, we'd be laser-focused on the job at hand. But chaos in our personal lives, whether it be a sick child, a failing relationship or financial worries, can make that difficult. (It's worth noting, that the same can be said for happy distractions, like a new baby, pet or love.) "When your personal life is in tumult, a lot of emotional hijacking goes on. Emotions consume you and stress exhausts you," says Julie Morgenstern, author of Time Management From the Inside Out.

Letting your emotions follow you from home to work will just prolong your work day, preventing you from getting home to deal with the fires that are burning there. But by focusing from 9 to 5, you can heed the advice from Billy Murray's therapist from the movie "What About Bob?" and take a vacation from your problems. "Work can be something you can control -- so take refuge in that. Use work as a break," suggests Morgenstern. Here's how to stay on point when your personal life is all over the place:

Prepare a specific schedule
Your to-do list -- augmented with time slots for each task -- is your best defense against distractions. "Knowing exactly what has to be accomplished in a given work day helps you to stay focused on the task at hand, and if you keep yourself busy, you'll have little time to dwell on the negative aspects of your personal life that could otherwise sabotage your productivity," says efficiency expert Andrew Jensen, founder & CEO of Sozo Firm, Inc., a business consulting firm.

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Insert some "fun" time
If all you have to look forward to outside of work is stress, you'll dread going home. "Oftentimes, thinking about how depressing or stressful your evening will be is enough to distract you during work hours, which can have a negative impact on your performance at work. Therefore, it could be helpful for you to make plans for something fun for after the work day ends," suggests Jensen. Whether it's a happy hour drink with a friend, a short hike or just a favorite TV show, small breaks from both work and personal problems can get you through tough times.

Break up with your "venting" pal
Is there someone at work who acts as a listening board for whatever is happening in your personal life? This is a very effective way of ruining any separation of work and home. Thank them for listening, but explain that you're trying to focus while at work, so you won't be chatting about your divorce or monster mother-in-law (especially not during office hours). "If they keep coming up to you and asking for an update, it will just open up the floodgates," says Morgenstern.

Stiff arm invasive emails and phone calls
A key aspect of focusing on work at the office will be keeping personal phone calls and emails at bay. If a family member is sick, designate a point person for someone to contact you if there is a true emergency, says Morgenstern, adding: "Do not be afraid to ask for help." If you're fighting with your spouse or friend, screen their emails -- literally. "Set up a filter on your email and have things go into a certain folder, and name it Do Not Read Until 2 P.M. and read it on your lunch break. If it's separate, it's easier to ignore than if it's sitting in your inbox," says Morgenstern. Tell the people in your personal life about your lunch break plan, or that you'll speak to them after hours.

Visually bring yourself back
If you're still responding to email or phone calls that aren't work-related, another tip to try is to put Post-It notes on your computer monitor or your cell phone. "Write a little question for yourself, like 'Is this the best time and place to be doing this?'" suggests Morgenstern. Seeing that simple reminder may help you get -- and stay -- back on track.

  • Amy Levin-Epstein On Twitter»

    Amy Levin-Epstein is a freelance writer who has been published in dozens of magazines (including Glamour, Self and Redbook), websites (including AOLHealth.com, Babble.com and Details.com) and newspapers (including The New York Post and the Boston Globe). To read more of her writing, visit AmyLevinEpstein.com.

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