Are you worried about your decreasing productivity? Are you a knowledge worker who handles multiple projects with a growing task list, requiring long periods of focused attention? Do you feel your capacity for concentration-filled work dwindling due to constant interruptions and distractions?
In this age of information overload, the one capacity that human beings are fast losing is ‘attention’. It’s common knowledge now that the current human attention span is less than that of a goldfish. How did we end up here?
Here’s how we are fast losing our capacity for long periods of focused, high-quality work:
You consume more information in a day than your 18th century counterpart consumed in his lifetime. The real question is: how much of that information is worthwhile, and how much is really useful in the context of your personal or professional life?
Do you really benefit from the constant newsfeed on facebook? Is your twitter feed really enriching your knowledge or skills?
According to some studies, a knowledge worker gets interrupted every 11 minutes on average. As I am writing this piece and slowly getting into flow, I was interrupted by a phone call from a salesperson. As I get back to writing, I suddenly realize that my thought-flow has been interrupted. It will take a few moments for me to get back on track.
See, the brain is not designed for multi-focusing (it can multi-task, contrary to popular belief. For example, you can walk and talk, shower and think etc. What you cannot do is devote equal focus to two things at the same time).
When you are interrupted or distracted from a task, you lose flow and your brain takes time to get back into the groove.
Aversion to boredom:
We have lost the ability to be at peace with boredom. Rather we are incapable of being with our own thoughts. We have become so bored of ourselves that if given a free minute, we immediately seek to fill it with WhatsApp or Facebook. This seemingly innocent habit is slowly sapping our ability to think deeply, engage in one thought-stream for a length of time, or to think-through scenarios in all its possibilities.
There – those 3 skills – deep thinking, thought-streaming, and thinking-through – are the pillars of ideation, creativity, strategizing and decision-making. Absent these, and our ability for peak work and leadership becomes seriously jeopardized.
So what are we to do about this? How can we regain our focus, rebuild our muscles for flow-filled work and get better at what we do? The brain is very much like a muscle, and whatever you consistently train it to do, it will grow stronger and sharper in that area.
Here are some tested tactics to do just that:
Work in 90-min bubbles:
An hour and a half is found to be an optimum block of time for doing focused work. After 90 minutes, your attention starts to slip. So, assign at least 2-3 such time-blocks in your day to work on your top priorities.
These 90-minute chunks must be free of irrelevant gadgets, people and information. Plan ahead so as to avoid distractions and interruptions (switch off your mobile phone, log off your social media, close your office door).
Plan your online life:
If left to our whims and temptations, our internet habits will suck us right into the fascinating world of unending newsfeeds and useless emails.
The antidote to this is to plan your internet schedule ahead of time. Assign small breaks of time from your focused work to indulge in social media. When the break is up, turn it off and return to work. Assign an email-checking schedule.
A good practice is to allocate 2-3 “email appointments” per day in order to process all your emails (this practice works for almost everyone….unless you are in a customer service role that requires you to be on email 24/7).
Set boundaries with people about when you can and cannot be interrupted. Make this a non-negotiable. If you tolerate being interrupted for work even after work hours, others will be happy to offer it to you. Whereas if you convey your boundaries, others will be happy to respect that too.
Become a student again:
Picture your days in the university. Your life was about (at least for a significant part) reading deeply, studying hard concepts, and memorizing. These three rituals are among the most effective strategies to train our brain for long, deep periods of concentration, and to build our attention-span.
So, carve out a half hour every day to read a deep text, perhaps memorize a few passages, and write out your own interpretation of what you read. Do this regularly, and it could go a long way in making you a better worker.