Do more, be better

Focus

by Jessica on 3 October 2011, filed under Working It Out

I’ve had several unsuccessful attempts at writing this article before now. It’s not that I don’t know what I want to talk about. It’s not even that I don’t want to do it; I enjoy writing for our blog. Sometimes urgent unexpected things come up, but often it’s non urgent distractions. For example I’ll be looking for my notes and chance upon a set of meeting papers that I’d misplaced. I then go to Google to check a few details and I find myself reading a blog post, or an incoming email flashes up and a moment later I’m watching a video someone shared with me. Before I know it I’ve run out of the time I set aside to write this post. Or worse, I completely forget that I set out to write it at all!

Now-a-days we are connected to a constant stream of information; about pet projects, our friends, families, current affairs, hobbies and interests, celebrities, the world around us. Pretty much the index of human knowledge is only a mouse click away. We barely need to seek information anymore; it is delivered to us passively via push notifications and newsfeeds. We are constantly monitoring and managing this information to try and stay on top of everything. In this hyperkinetic environment it to is no wonder we cannot focus on one thing at a time.

Distractions are the enemy of productivity. Science has shown, as much as we may try, the human brain cannot multi-task. When we are doing several things our attention is rapidly changing. We are not actually holding several things in our brains simultaneously, as we may have ourselves believe. This is extremely detrimental to our ability to correctly process and retain information.

Back in 1740 Lord Chesterfield summed it up pretty well in a letter to his son, “There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time”.

So how can we improve our ability to stay focused? Well I have been working on this a lot over the last few months and I have settled on 4 things that can make a big difference:

1. Get yourself into the right head space. In order to focus you need to be in the right head space to do the task at hand. For me different times of the day, different levels of caffeine in my system etc all contribute to my ability to focus on different types of tasks. Creative or consuming activities happen first thing in the morning, whereas formulaic and routine tasks are best straight after lunch.

I often take a walk around the block or spend 15 minutes browsing the paper before I start a new task. It helps me me disengage from what I’ve just been doing and reengage with the new task at hand. The important thing is to do it in a managed way.

2. Rewards and discipline. Decide on what you need to achieve, by when, and then line up a reward for when you are done. For example I am going to finish writing this report in one hour and then I can go and get another cup of coffee. This system helps ‘gamify’ the task and it also means if you drift off task you can pull yourself back on track and be reassured there is an end to the block of work.

The trick is to maintain discipline so that the reward only comes when the task is done. People who work well with this technique should check out the Pomodoro Technique.

3. Control distractions (in your physical and your virtual environment). If you are going to focus on writing this report, have the notes for it, and nothing else on your otherwise clear desk. Close your email program, close your other internet tabs. I go so far as to use a different browser so there are no bookmarks or RSS feeds around. People with multiple screens for their computers have the advantage of creating a focused portal in their virtual space.

4. Planned periods of down time. For your periods of focus to be most effective you will have to balance them with planned periods of ‘down time’ where you train your brain to completely switch out of work mode. Don’t let constantly monitoring all information overwhelm and consume you. Don’t check your work emails at 6 in the morning (even if you feel like you’re scoring brownie points by responding outside of hours). By enforcing the times that you do and do not pay attention to information, you allow your brain to relax and attend to the most important information at that time.

. . .

The key with all these techniques is to plan how you will implement them in advance. If you just try to dive in with good intentions, the old patterns will return quickly. Take some time to plan out your new way of working and then when you are ready, get started.

Learning about focus is going to be an on-going challenge for me. To be 100% honest I am actually supposed to be content loading right now. Maybe if I had planned to have cake as a reward for the content loading I would have stayed on track. But then again this blog post may have never been written!

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