When You Can’t Sit Still But Need to Get Things Done

man slumped over desk, can't sit still but need to get things done
Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Do you have trouble sitting still? Do you get the fidgets? Does the idea of sitting at a desk all day make you grumpy? For many people, sitting in one place for extended periods of time is anything from unappealing to painful. So, what do you do when you can’t sit still but need to get things done?

First, we can acknowledge that there are many reasons why sitting in one spot for hours on end may be difficult. Anything from ADD to a high energy level can make focusing in one stationary location a challenge. If we think about it, the idea that sitting in one place is what we should be doing is relatively recent. For most of human history, the ability to perform a variety of physically demanding chores was the expectation. Many jobs still incorporate a fair amount of physical activity. However, much of today’s lifestyle is centered around computer work and other sedentary tasks. Both children and adults are often expected to sit still, sometimes in the same chair, for hours on end. Furthermore, that chair is often in a relatively small space, with little to look at but a wall.

Fortunately, there are many tools and resources available to help improve productivity in the current climate. While I am not aiming to provide a comprehensive solution, I do have one tip to offer that might help you and/or your children stay focused and be productive. I call it the “Change of Scenery” trick.

The “Change of Scenery” trick addresses the desire to look up and move around while keeping you productive. It provides physical release while minimizing the odds of getting distracted. It is sort of an enhanced pomodoro technique.

To understand the concept, imagine you are working out at a gym. Let’s say you begin by running on the treadmill for 30 minutes. Then you get off and walk to a different part of the gym to lift weights for 10 minutes. Lastly, you relocate to yet a third location for some stretching and floor work. This approach breaks down the large project of “working out” into smaller bits that feel achievable. You only need to stay focused on one type of exercise at a time, and then you can take a break, move to a new spot, and start fresh on something else.

This same concept can be applied to many kinds of stationary work. For instance, we might break down a large chunk of work, such as “homework,” into smaller chunks, such as “math,” “science,” and “silent reading.” Rather than trying to do them all at in one location, we can instead choose distinct areas of the home in which to work on these various tasks. For instance, we might do math at the kitchen table (the most popular place for homework!), then head into the dining room to work on science, and finish by stretching out on the floor for silent reading. [Note: for what it is worth, I’ve observed that few children want to come home from school and sit alone at a desk in their rooms to do homework. Fighting with your children over where to do homework isn’t worth the hassle. If they want to sit in the bathtub, let them!]

Another example might be desk work. If you dread sitting in one spot all day, use the “change of scenery” trick and mix it up. For example, choose to “pay bills” at the desk, then carry the laptop to the kitchen island to work on “correspondence,” and finally place your computer on the counter in the den to work on “writing,” “research,” or whatever else you have to do.

The secret of the “change of scenery” trick is that it openly acknowledges the need many of us have to move around, as well as the burst of energy we experience when we move to a new location.

There are a couple of additional things to bear in mind if you want to try the “change of scenery” trick:

  1. Consider what supplies you might need for your various tasks. If possible, store the specific items in the location where you will work. If this isn’t possible, assemble a portable caddy to move supplies with you. For computer work, it is quite nice to have charging cords in each location.
  2. If your computer is unmovable (e.g., if you work from desktop computer) think if there are any aspects of your to-do list that can be done offline, or possibly from your phone.
  3. Don’t force yourself to use a workstation that you don’t like. A desk in the kitchen can be very useful for storing supplies, even if you never sit there. Choose locations where you feel comfortable.
  4. It helps to move in the same pattern each time you tackle a similar list of tasks. This helps your body “feel” the progress as you move from space to space.

Also, bear in mind that “travel time” between locations is not a waste. Most techniques for improving focus embrace the truth that attention tends to rise and fall. We are not machines, and no one stays fully attentive and focused for eight hours at a time. Productive people rotate their work between tasks that require full focus and those that require a bit less. A restroom break, glass of water, or social media check as we move between spaces can actually help our brains “exhale” and get ready for what is coming next.

Admittedly, the “change the scenery” trick is not a complete solution for the challenges we face with focus and attention. It also might be hard to implement for those who have limitations on how much they can move around (e.g., office workers, people who live in a studio apartment, etc.). However, it can’t hurt to think creatively about how to add some variety to your setting. For instance, if you can’t change rooms, maybe you could alternate standing up and sitting down. Or perhaps you could move to a conference room, common room, or even head outside to a bench or coffee shop.

If you get the fidgets and struggle to sit still in one place, why not give this a try? Have you ever approached your tasks in this manner? What has worked for you?

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24 thoughts on “When You Can’t Sit Still But Need to Get Things Done”

  1. What a novel idea to change the scenery when sitting and working! It gives you renewed energy with a new perspective. Getting up to walk for 5 minutes to your new location gives you a break too.

  2. YES! My husband teaches his employees the pomodoro technique and it works well for me. I do think about how our attention spans have changed so much. I noticed on the Oscars pre-show last night that when they’d be interviewing someone GREAT, another window on the TV would open to reveal someone new in a designer gown. Like they couldn’t trust us to want to just watch.. one interview. We also needed that second visual to watch. And I realize that’s what we’re like!

    That was a tangent but I’m struggling lately with focus because of the pregnancy. At least THAT is temporary.
    Tamara recently posted…Easter Dessert: Peeps N’ Egg HousesMy Profile

    1. That’s such a great observation about attention and TV. I noticed this during the NFL season, when the commercials started to run on a section of the screen. To me, that seems crazy. We are pressuring ourselves to focus on more than one thing, which ultimately exhausts our brains and kills attention span. As to pregnancy, yep, been there, remember that side effect!!!

  3. I really like the way you framed this conversation, Seana. I don’t tend to move my computer around but I do take small breaks. I’ll do a specific set of tasks at my computer and then do something else for a few minutes. I believe it is really important to let your brain relax and refocus. The other thing you said that is so important for everyone to embrace is that we are not machines. We should not expect our brains to maintain the same focus for 8 hours at a stretch.
    Diane N Quintana recently posted…Want a More Balanced Life? HarmonizeMy Profile

    1. I know I feel fortunate to be able to toggle between computer tasks and non-computer tasks, but I know this isn’t the case for everyone. So many items our “to-do” list these days center on our computers, and it can be rough. This is a great strategy for children as well, who have an extra need to move around!

  4. I love this and can definitely relate! I begin my workday at home at my desk in front of my desktop computer, but then have to switch to the kitchen on my laptop, then maybe I move to the dining room or porch if it’s nice, and then always end the day back at my desk. I need that movement and change of scenery to stay engaged and focused for sure!

    1. I really think it helps! I do some tasks at my kitchen island, and I always do writing in a chair in the family room. I feel like I’m getting things done when I can move to a “new” location!

  5. Love this idea. I hadn’t thought of it the way you put it, but I have incorporated parts of it anyway. For example, I pay bills in the kitchen where I can spread out on the table. I don’t have a trash can in my office, so I drop papers on the floor and then after a project, get up and take them to the trash.

    1. Isn’t it funny how many people end up at the kitchen island? It’s one of the few spaces where they might find a clear surface, and that is a magnet. Also, it tends to be where other family members are, so those who don’t enjoy being alone often gravitate toward this spot. I like being at mine as well.

    1. For some reason it took me a long time to realize that I needed a couple of extra charging cords that I could leave in various locations in my home (and my car). What a lightbulb moment that was for me!

    1. Great idea! Just sprinkle a few of those in to get you up and moving. Even those who don’t struggle with the “fidgets” benefit from getting up, looking far away, and engaging some different muscles, right?

  6. Great minds think alike! I just wrote about switching spaces so I couldn’t agree more. I definitely utilize this tactic (writing my blogs or this response is a “Kitchen Table” activity) and Leslie Josel talks about this in her book “How To Do It Now Because It’s Not Going Away.” I also find that it helps me when I do physical tasks between deep focus work. For example, I might fold laundry, run upstairs to get something, or wash dishes in between computer or paper work. Love your post!
    Jill Katz recently posted…Switching Spaces for Maximum ProductivityMy Profile

    1. That’s so funny that we were on the same page – love that! I completely relate with getting up and doing some physical chores. After a bit of time at my computer, I just have the need to move, and I’m glad when I have something “brainless and physical” to do. Even taking a shower can give my brain, eyes, and body a break from the desktime.

  7. There’s so much wisdom in this. And even though, at the start of the pandemic, I wrote about conquering the weirdness of time dilation by using a different room (like working or “vacationing” in a guest bedroom), I had never thought of this in the robust way you’ve described. When I’m feeling fidgety, I avoid work, but I could absolutely move myself (for non-computer tasks) elsewhere. I’m going to share this concept with my clients. Great job!
    Julie Bestry recently posted…On the Road Again: Organize Your Mobile OfficeMy Profile

    1. I find it works for people of all ages, especially if you have some different spaces to inhabit. I’ve spoken with multiple people who had a hard time staying focused during the pandemic when they were stuck in a studio apartment. We seem to be biologically programmed to move, and yet societally challenged to sit still. It’s a tough one, but hopefully this little trick offers at least one good option!

  8. Jill wrote about a similar thing this week!
    I work well at my desk at home. It is a standing desk and I find I concentrate better on certain tasks when I’m standing, so I change my view that way. I do a lot of reading while laying in bed. I think I concentrate better on that task there. I also use a co-working space.

    1. I know, Jill and I were on the same page this week – so fun! My son-in-law loves his standing desk. If I start reading in bed, I promptly fall asleep LOL!

  9. I only have a laptop these days, so I can work anywhere. At my desk I have a large-ish external monitor (I use the laptop as a keyboard and use both displays for writing and researching). But sometimes I want to stand at my kitchen counter (it helps me focus on paperwork, paying bills, etc.). And other times I want to relax in my recliner while I surf the net, or get some fresh air at my outdoor patio table when the weather is nice.

    1. I only have a laptop as well. I do some work at my kitchen island, and my blog writing from my comfy chair in the family room. It’s funny, but I just sit down in the chair and I feel ready to write!

  10. Great article, and I think this is helpful for so many people. I know I make a 10 mile list at the beginning of the day, but sometimes the smallest tasks are so hard to just sit down and get done! Thank you for your tips and tricks!

    1. Yes, that 10 mile list can be very intimidating. No one is going to get to all of it in one day, so it all comes down to prioritizing, and finding a way to stay on task until those top priorities can be marked as “done.”

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