One key to accomplishing the things that matter most to us is the ability to give our focused attention to our most important tasks. Sometimes that’s easier said than done.
The Critical Importance of Staying Focused and Paying Attention
In his book, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, Daniel Levitin wrote “Attention is the most essential mental resource for any organism.” In the 21st century, with so many things vying for our attention, it can be incredibly difficult to give our focused attention to anything.
This episode was inspired by Carson Tate’s excellent book, Work Simply: Embracing the Power of Your Personal Productivity Style.
Why do we have trouble staying focused?
According to a 2005 study by the productivity research firm Basex cited in a Forbes.com article, interruptions and distractions consume 28% of the average knowledge worker’s day, with an estimated economic toll of $650 billion due to lost productivity.
[W]e have come to accept workdays filled with distractions and interruptions as normal; many of us complete our work in the ‘margins’ of our days, early in the morning and late at night, due to the pressing demands on our time and attention.” ~ Carson Tate, in Work Simply
Short attention spans and lack of respect for others
It’s common to be in a meeting with people on their phones, checking emails, or texting, which means they’re not giving real attention to the speaker.
Give your fullest attention to whatever the moment presents.” ~ Eckhart Tolle
“Continuous Partial Attention”
This term was coined by tech executive Linda Stone, who worked on emerging technologies at Apple and Microsoft Research in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. It describes the modern predicament of being constantly attuned to everything without fully concentrating on anything. “We’re picking up signals from all over the place, but we’re not concentrating on anything.” (cited in this article in The Atlantic)
New technology and “Network Tools”
In Cal Newport’s new book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, he cites a 2012 McKinsey study that found the average knowledge worker spends more than 60% of the workweek becoming distracted by electronic communication and the Internet. This includes about 30% of time dedicated to reading and answering email. Constant access to network tools, such as email, texting, and social media, fracture our attention.
Attention is a finite resource
We only can focus on a limited number of things at one time. We’ve discussed multitasking in past episodes and I’ve written about it on Lifehack.org in “The Ability to Multitask Isn’t All it’s Cracked Up to Be.”
Types of attention
As Carson Tate discusses in Work Simply, human brains are equipped for involuntary and voluntary attention.
Involuntary attention is the brain function that is constantly watching for threats to survival and triggered by outside stimuli in an attempt to keep us safe.
In order to survive, our ancestors evolved to be the stimulation-hungry and easily distracted, continually searching their interior and their environment for opportunities and threats, carrots and sticks.” ~ neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson in an article from Psychology Today.
Voluntary attention is used with a project or task we actively choose to focus on.
- Sabotaging psychological and environmental forces keep our attention away from what we need to focus on.
Intense emotion can disrupt attention and can lead to self-interruption as a way of escaping that intense experience. Physical discomfort can interfere with concentration. Insecurity can result in distraction. The desire for connection can override our focus on long-term goals. The constant bombardment by new information means every piece of information received is competing with one another for attention in our brains.
Why does this matter?
The lack of ability to concentrate, focus, and pay attention limits our ability to advance our skills and create something new and valuable.
Cal Newport has written an entire book about what he calls “deep work,” which he defines as a state of distraction-free concentration that use all your brain power to focus on a single task or activity, pushing cognitive abilities to your limit. It requires long periods of time where uninterrupted thinking can occur.
Daniel Levitin speaks to this when he writes how “multitasking is the enemy of a focused attentional system,” in The Organized Mind.
The chemicals our brain releases while multitasking, cortisol and adrenaline, can overstimulate the brain, causing confusion or a mental fog. Multitasking also creates a loop of losing focus and searching for external stimulation. The same brain used for focusing on a task works against itself when distractions as simple as something new or novel.
It affects who we are as people.
In Work Simply, Carson Tate writes that humans are what they choose to focus on. This is why keeping our focus on our long-term goals is so important, instead of squandering it on whatever captures our attention.
A Psychology Today article made the point that “What we pay attention to is literally what we will build in our brain tissue. Our neurons wire in response to what we focus upon.” In a similar article, Dr. Rick Hanson explains this is because of something called “ experience-dependent neuroplasticity,” which means “whatever you hold in attention has a special power to change your brain.”
Daniel Levitin, in The Organized Mind, writes that “in order for something to become encoded as part of your experience, you need to have paid conscious attention to it.”
In a recent webinar, life coach Brooke Castillo said, “What you think about either makes you feel better or worse, regardless of what’s going on in your life.”
It affects our relationships
Meaningful interaction with one another is impaired when we’re constantly distracted. We can’t develop strong, nurturing relationships if our attention is pulled away by distractions such as our phones or social media.
It affects our society
It’s difficult to solve complex issues facing our society when we find it difficult to focus long enough to think through those issues carefully. Our collective attention span is too short, being too easily pulled to the next new or interesting thing.
What can we do about it?
Understanding how our brain works and how our attention is affected can help us learn to keep our focus. Create an environment in which you can feel safe, secure, happy, and at peace.
Many tools I mentioned in the podcast episode recommended by Dr. Rick Hanson can be found in the Psychology Today article mentioned earlier.
- The app and website Focus@Will is designed to give that involuntary attention part of your brain something to do while you’re trying to keep your attention on the task at hand.
- Carson Tate recommends cultivating attention and becoming aware and mindful. Track your distractions for a period of time, then evaluate the data. For example:
- Is there a time of day you’re more easily distracted?
- Is it easier to focus after exercise?
- Are there particular types of activities that are easier to focus on?
- Create an environment that supports your particular attention management needs.
- Find ways to restore your focus.
- Try some deep breathing.
- Take a 10-minute walk.
- Try the Pomodoro Technique.
Studies cited in the Forbes.com article mentioned earlier indicate that meditation and exercise, either physical or mental, are effective. Another article I read suggested spending time in nature as a distraction for your brain so you can come back refreshed and focused.
Practice being focused.
For example, one article recommended making opportunities to lose yourself in something you enjoy to help your mind rest and recoup its ability to focus on difficult tasks again later.
Deal with the things that interfere and distract (some excellent suggestions from Chapter 4 of Carson Tate’s book, Work Simply)
- Technology — Carson Tate describes the “Productivity Paradox” as the problem that technology that was created to save time and make us more productive is actually doing the opposite.
- Check and respond to email only at low-productivity times or plan specific times, if possible.
- Leave your devices somewhere else or turn your phone facedown so alerts don’t distract you.
- Let people know you’ll be out of reach during specified periods.
- Turn off the sounds and alerts on your technology.
- Designate a tech-free day once a week or once a month, whichever you can manage.
- Try Freedom or similar apps to lock yourself our of social media for periods of time when you need to focus on other work.
- Emergencies — Servers go down, work gets lost, the car breaks down — these things happen, and sometimes they are unavoidable. Other times, though, they can be the result of miscalculating the time or resources needed, procrastination, or poor planning. These emergencies can cost hours of time, low productivity, and stress. But there are steps you can take to help deal with and avoid future emergencies:
- Define the emergency and decide if it’s truly urgent. If it threatens life, health or property, deal with it. Other situations may be able to be dealt with later.
- Develop a plan to deal with future emergencies. Minimize the number of times emergencies interfere with productivity by thinking ahead and coming up with processes to avoid them.
- Interruptions — Whatever the source, interruptions interfere with our ability to pay attention and focus on accomplishing our work and goals. Some options to avoid these are:
- Establish office hours — either times you’re available or times you’re not available when you need focused attention.
- Make appointments rather than accommodating drop-ins.
- Find another place to work when you need to focus.
- If you can, leave your phone behind and go to a conference room, park, or the library.
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