Our minds wander about 50% of the time.* Add to this work and social interruptions and it is no surprise that you would have a hard time staying focused.
There’s another dimension to losing focus. More subtly, as our attention becomes divided and our thoughts fragmented, switching tasks demands more brain power and energy expenditure than concentrating on one thing at a time*.
Switching focus takes only 1/10th of a second, but it might add up to a 40% productivity loss in one day. The switching also results in cognitive overload, which is extremely tiring to the mind and the body. Further, the more you lose focus and turn to distractions, the more you become unable to sift relevant from redundant information. You are no longer able to learn and apply knowledge effectively.
The primary reason for a loss of focus and productivity is nowadays mostly created by the incessant interruptions from digital media. I will use this as an example in showing you how you can regain more focus and increase your productivity.
Are you like me juggling professional activities, family life, and perhaps an active social sporting schedule and a major project on the side (I’m writing a doc thesis)? Somehow your core activities need to fit into your weekly schedule and cannot be abandoned.
- Ask yourself “How efficiently do I make use of my time and where do I waste it?” and “What do I want instead?”
Formulate an intention clearly, because motivation gets you started, and motivation arises from the benefit you perceive in pursuing a course of action.
Precise formulation is an important first step to creating a positive frame of mind so that change can occur.* Research shows that behavioral change only happens while in active, positive states. The intention could be something like “Becoming focused and productive by removing needless distractions and only allowing a maximum of one hour a day for social media browsing by April. ” A clear intention states the goal, quantifies it, identifies resources and hurdles, and has a start and end date.
Since I could not answer the question, I began examining how I spent my days.
- Start with monitoring how you spend your day.
Set up a recording system. It could be your diary. Start writing everything you do for a week. Do so even if it is only a 15-minute activity. You are observing yourself. Keep yourself motivated by also getting some feedback from others: are you spending too much time facing your phone instead of people?
This exercise helps you determine your attention-grabbing activities or hurdles. The chances are that they have a pattern, such as a time of the day at which they occur most often, or, in particular, situations such as after an upset, or when you are tired.
You will identify the pattern by the end of one week. Gaining this clarity is essential to keep you motivated as you pursue your stated intention or goal.
I recorded my daily activities every 30 minutes and found several time-wasters after one week of self-monitoring. More importantly, I discovered that I would drift up to three hours a day on the web and handling irrelevant emails. I also noticed my pattern. It would start like this: I’d work for a while, and I’d turn to an incoming IM or an email notification flashing on my screen. I would open the mail, follow an online thread, then click on embedded links, find my way through attention-grabbing headlines, and I would then discover who are the 25 celebrities who have aged terribly. One hour later, indeed, my 5 minutes of IM interruption would have become an extended digital wander. I would lose any sense of time, erring through a stream of entertaining but irrelevant information. I added up to 19 hours a week wasted on the internet. I believe to be an average.
This wandering process is addictive because the net and smartphones deliver exactly what our brain craves: novelty, constant stimulation, and immediate gratification.
- Process your findings, but don’t implement a radical plan yet.
As an immediate gut reaction, I tested sheer willpower for a while, restricting access to social media and apps, and scheduling every minute of my day on one of my core activities instead. I lasted three days and spent the fourth on an internet binge.
So much for my ambitious plan to eliminate distractions. I concluded that I needed not to eliminate time-wasters, but create a dynamic balance between the important stuff, my core activities, and the addictive fun of strolling on social medias when I needed a break. I also systematically listed the time wasters, selected the mostly harmless ones, and thought about how many of them I needed to be able to last through my day.
- Implement a progressive course of action. Motivation only works so far as you can create new habits.
Habits are formed one at a time, through repetition.
Try this first: when you wake up in the morning, immediately make a mental or written note of the 3 tasks you need to accomplish today to support any one of your core activities. Then ask yourself “what do I need to do now?” and then, “is this really what I want/need to do?”. Once you have your answer, schedule the most important activities in your calendar, preferably first thing in the morning. Block whatever time you need to complete the whole task or a chunk in your diary. Allow this activity to become all-absorbing for that period. Commit to switching off the phone, the internet and other distractions during that time. Then do it. Notice how long you can last this way. This becomes your baseline.
You are now applying principles often discussed in time management: “one thing at a time” , “batch processing,” “working on what’s important first,” or using “concentrated time.”
My use of a progressive course of action is deliberate. Willpower is an energy that comes in limited supply*.
Discipline is an action that requires moment by moment intention and focus,- the very thing you want to regain and strengthen-, and, like any task, it is tiring to the brain and cannot be sustained through a whole day. Willpower is like a muscle, and growing it happens with the implementation of a rigorous training schedule that makes it stronger over time.
A behavior is a set of habitual actions. Forging a new course implies creating some new habits and only one at a time, so that your daily reservoir of will and discipline is not depleted. A habit, as it becomes an automatic repetition, requires less and less energy to sustain over time. Once seamlessly integrated into your life, you can then move on to the next new habit you want to form. Productivity and focus derive from handling one task at a time, a wholly different concept to multi-tasking. There is no such thing as multi-tasking: the human brain is wired only for task-switching.*
- Add more periods of focus to that initial distraction free activity.
So far you only have one daily activity that is subject to your focus-enhancement goal. You have not yet attempted to disrupt or curtail your distraction pattern. You are allowing for the new routine in step 4 to become ingrained and automatic. It takes up to three weeks for this integration to occur.
At that point, move on to scheduling a new activity, respecting the no-interruption rule suggested in step 4. Slowly integrate that new task in your day. Allow it to encroach on the distraction pattern you have uncovered in step 3.
- Test at which point you can no longer tolerate distraction-free time.
Whether you were able to work without distraction for 1, 3 or 6 hours, there come a point where your attention is exhausted and needs a rest. Take a break, and allow your favorite distraction to take precedence for a while. Monitor yourself and do not allow that break to exceed a given amount of time. You need to set that duration in a realistic way: the length of the break fits the length and intensity of previous work. Stick to the period you set. An alarm is a good way to get started.
- Exercise your focus before you move on to lengthier periods of attention.
Keep scheduling a suitable amount of time for each new task, and repeat steps 4 to 7. Slowly increment your focus time, beyond what you uncovered at step 6. Week after week, you will find that you are flexing your focus muscle with more strength.
Be realistic. If your stamina, health, and other issues do not allow you to exceed more than one, two, five or six hours of focus, do not attempt to push greatly beyond your current limit. You would demotivate yourself. Simply identify what is your optimum, most productive pattern and challenge it from time to time.
- Continue building your attention practice.
You do this by creating routines and automatisms, or activities that you do without thinking about them. Although some activities might only be a few minutes in duration, consider treating them like any task you would start in Step 4 above. These micro-tasks are actually going to support decluttering your life, increase your wellbeing, vitality and productivity, and will keep strengthening your ability to focus.
- For each goal that you’ve reached……. schedule and set a reward, and give it to yourself.
An alternative is to think about what you have to lose if you don’t get your work done, though it is not as fun!
The following are routines that promote productivity and sharpened focus. Remember to only incorporate one at a time into your new routine.
– Planning activities: taking a few minutes to plan your day and week ahead ; scheduling repeating blocks of your essential or regular activities ; waking up every morning deciding on today’s most relevant activities or/and going to bed and thinking of tomorrow’s important task.
– Planning short recovery activities during the day. Recovery activities counter stress, even if only a few minutes in duration: meditating, taking a power nap, walking briskly to the coffee machine, using relaxation and mindfulness techniques.
– Creating an “offline or digital free” zone in your day, in your week, or as a vacation during the year; leaving your digital devices out of the bedroom.
– Learning to check and change your perspective: focus on what you need to make things happen, as opposed to rationalizing why they did not occur. Take 5 minutes to brainstorm, assess, plan and plot before you start a new task.
– Ditching drama: review your email list, it might be time to unsubscribe a few senders; think about a conflict you may have with a colleague or a friend and sort it out ASAP (Don’t let the issue gain control of your mind. It is a minefield as any unpleasant thoughts are likely to lead you to seek distractions.)
*A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21071660
* Research on Multitasking: http://www.apa.org/research/action/multitask.aspx
* Fostering positive emotions for Intentional Change – an introduction: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/intentional-change-theory.htm