In the modern workplace it can feel as though we’re all task assassins — just killing it every day. We dispatch with emails as soon they land, go on “deep dives” in between bites of sad desk lunches and keep tabs on social media as we scurry from meeting to meeting. But all this busy-ness can take a toll on our brains. Research shows multitasking isn’t nearly as efficient as we’d like to think it is. In fact, the American Psychological Association has found task-switching reduces productivity by up to 40 percent. And as our brains get used to this near-constant stimulation, our ability to focus for any sustained amount of time diminishes; we then start to seek out even more distractions. Is it possible to increase your attention span (or actually get one)? I reached out to Clare Kumar, a productivity consultant in Toronto, for tips.
Is focus something that can be improved?
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Absolutely. Start by becoming aware of what’s pulling you away. There are external interruptions — the work environment and the expectation for quick responses. And then there are the internal motivations that drive us to distract ourselves — we fear we might be missing out, for instance, so we check our email. Our brains crave new, and we get a hit of dopamine whenever we see something novel or challenging or exciting. But since we’re wired to naturally seek that out, we have to cultivate discipline to counter that.
I’ll suddenly need to refill my water, or I’ll absolutely have to research “just one more thing.” Is there a way to settle into work faster?
You have to set yourself up for success. And rituals that ease you into a particular task can be really powerful: it might be a cup of tea, music or a certain notebook. You’re training your brain, and these cues will help your brain feel like it’s at home and knows what it has to do. You also need to limit potential distractions: shut down your browser, or at least hide the window, and turn off Facebook, Twitter and Instagram — they feed your dopamine like nothing else.
How do you tackle inertia? Sometimes the task is so boring or overwhelming that you’ll do anything but that job.
First identify what the struggle is. Once you understand the problem, you can develop a strategy to move through that. If it’s boring, perhaps your brain needs more stimulation. Try using a timer where you can play beat the clock, or listen to music. But you also need to align your priorities and values with the task. Why is it important? Once you have that, then you can prioritize your energy and you won’t have so much internal resistance. Write out what I call a “Focus Five List” every day. It’s not an overwhelming number of things to accomplish in a day so you can feel like you can tick them off. Rather than having your whole to-do list in front of you and feeling like you’ll never get there, you can get those things done. And as early in the day as possible, try to knock off something meaningful.
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But even if we’re able to avoid our own productivity pitfalls, there are still all the interruptions that come with working in an office. How do you handle those?
A lot of my clients struggle with boundary setting and saying no. Again, it starts with self-awareness. You don’t have to worry that you are going to forget to check your email — that’s never going to happen. But you have to ask yourself what you need in order to deliver the results you’re responsible for delivering. How are you going to carve out and preserve 60 to 90 minutes where you can focus on what you’re really gifted at? You may have to block off time in your calendar to do that deep-thought work.
It’s hard to ignore email though.
Sometimes we need to test out what happens if we don’t respond right away. See how many people actually have an are-you-bleeding emergency that couldn’t wait. Frankly, our whole culture and GDP is suffering from this. A lot of communication is self-focused, it’s not considering the other person’s day and the fact they had an agenda. Rather than “I need this ASAP,” how about “I need this by 5 p.m. today.” We need to give people the gift of time, so we can all have windows of sustained focus periods and engaged periods. If you could get three periods of focus work a day, your life will change.
Kathryn Hayward is a fortysomething senior editor at Today’s Parent, and a mom of two.