Corporations pay huge sums to garner it, social media apps compete vigorously to get a larger share of it and media outlets run crazier and crazier stories to grab it. What is it, you ask? It is the most valuable commodity in today’s world, attention. A fragmented resource growing even more scarce in our media crazed climate. The good news is that since attention is such a rare commodity, like gold or precious jewels, if you can control it, you can experience increased success in life and in your career.
Knock, knock is anybody there?
Per bestselling author Charles Duhigg, most people spend up to 40% of their day in a semi-hypnotic state. If you’ve ever passed your exit for work or spent time looking for your phone (while you were talking on it) you know the feeling.
It’s not totally our fault, our minds love to wander, and without focus, your thoughts will soon be “off to the races” completely removed from the task at hand. Psychologists have studied the human ability to focus for decades with increased interest in more recent years.
While a direct link between attention and excellence has been difficult to prove, anecdotally, we know that it plays an important part in nearly everything one seeks to accomplish. Leaders who wish to perform at their best and see results need to be aware of how they direct their attention.
Multitasking is a misnomer
Focus is critical in today’s digital world. But technology, in the form of smartphones, tablets, and other devices, disrupts normal connections. Workers are becoming completely unaware of what is happening around them and clueless about how to interact with others because of the time they spend on their devices.
Even executives are finding it more difficult to sustain concentration on anything else when they are constantly checking emails and social media. This phenomenon has been exacerbated by the concept of “multitasking”. I put the term multitasking in quotes because while it is used commonly in our vernacular, it doesn’t exist in the way in which most of us think. Our brains are wired to focus on one task at a time, we can switch back and forth rather quickly, giving the appearance of simultaneous activity, but your mind is only aware of one thing at time.
This kind of activity gives the appearance of efficiency, but it reduces overall work quality and output. For a real-world example, start tapping your finger on your leg as fast as you can. Now, while still tapping, calculate the product of 17 X 24 in your head without slowing your tapping. If you are like 99% of the public, your finger probably slowed some at first, then the harder you tried to solve the problem, the slower and slower your pace became until it came to a complete stop.
You may cry foul at the previous example because it does not seem like a fitting business scenario, but the results still hold true in business, although less apparent. When you try to compose an email while listening to a conference call, one of those activities will suffer.
How many times have you had to repeat something you just said, because someone was “multitasking” in a meeting? Or maybe you have a table full of meeting participants who are all absorbed in their screen and not paying attention at all. If this describes your company’s culture, imagine how much real productivity is being wasted.
You’d think that people would realize they’re bad at multitasking and would quit. But a cognitive illusion sets in, where multitaskers think that they are doing great. Part of the problem is that workplaces are misguidedly encouraging workers to multitask, believing that more activity means more productivity. There is a point where activity replaces insight and thought.
In his bestselling book, Deep Work, Cal Newport talks about how focusing on tasks for an extended period without distraction is the key to real quality work. He scoffs at the belief that it is better to use social media to make people think your work is important than to do important work. His suggestion is to spend time doing real work and not flitting around appearing busy. In this age of shallow work, someone who has the skill to remain patient and focus on something for a long period will possess a very valuable skill set.
To increase your ability to be present and focused you must first understand that it is a choice. Your mind wants to wander or be distracted at all times, so to get the most out of your workday, you must choose to be present in the moment. Here are some tips to practice being present.
We take our breathing for granted, but it is critical to so many process in our body including being focused. Try taking a deep breath, hold it for a second and then inhale. This act of focusing on your breathing helps to turn your attention internally. Once your attention is internal, you can control it better and direct it where you need it to be.
Whenever you feel your mind wandering, stop and take another deep breath. If you are familiar with meditation or yoga, you will know that this method is great for keeping your mind focused on what is happening physically in your surroundings.
Turn off Social Media
While it can be debated whether social media should be allowed at all in the workplace, what cannot be denied is the toll it has on your ability to focus on the tasks at hand. Go on a Social Media fast and see how you feel.
Social Media addiction is fueled in large part by FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). You may believe that if you don’t have your social apps open, you will miss out on some event or meme that everyone is talking about. However, you probably won’t miss much and if it’s important the news will get to you via another channel.
We often think of listening as being a passive exercise. We quite often use the time we are supposed to be listening to prepare our response to what the speaker is saying. To help you be present while you are listening, practice restating what the previous speaker said. For example, “What I heard you say was…”. Also, look the speaker in the eye if possible. More information is communicated non-verbally than through the word the speaker is using.
Batch Your Work
Batching means consolidating your work into intense and uninterrupted pulses, and leveraging the following law of productivity: High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus). Instead of trying to do two or three things at once, pick the most important thing and just do that. Also, try blocking time in your calendar for certain activities when you cannot be disturbed. two hours for meetings, two hours for emails, two hours for phone calls, etc. By batching tasks throughout the day, by type, you can get better quality of work done in the same amount of time.
Being fully present and focused during your workday is critical to your career and your success. Follow the tips laid out in this article to cut down on your distractions and become more present during your workday.