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Find time to focus and improve performance

Are you finding it hard to concentrate? Does your mind regularly wander to other things? Are you easily distracted?  If you answered yes to any of these questions your inability to focus might be impacting your performance.

We are living in the Information Age.  A knowledge-based society influenced by the evolution of technology and a world without boundaries.  However, without refuting the benefits of technology and the virtues of access to information without borders, has the information age also reduced our ability to focus?

Although access to information and people has never been better, are we living in the information age or the immediate age?  Unfettered access has driven an expectation that people are available anytime and anywhere. It has equally driven a desire for immediacy so that we want and expect things (replies to our email or texts) right now. Over time we have learned to adapt to these demands and within the workplace we have evolved to unconsciously divide our attention and have been driven to multi-task in order to keep up.

Multi-tasking versus single tasking

Multi-tasking needs no definition.  The practice of doing several tasks at once has permeated every aspect of our workplace from sending emails while talking on the phone, to editing a paper while listening to a presentation.  Much has been made of the virtues of multi-tasking and we’ve come to revere those who are good at it.   However, in this age of immediacy are we expecting too much? Does multi-tasking really improve our productivity and performance?

While doing more than one thing at once may seem efficient, there is growing evidence that it actually slows you down and reduces the quality of your work.  For example, multi-tasking has been found to influence short-term memory loss.  Once you have completed the tasks you may later find that you can’t remember sending an email, or what was said in a meeting, or who was asked to follow-up on the action points.

Multi-tasking has also been found to limit our ability to concentrate. When interrupted, our excitement level spikes and that surge of excitement becomes addictive such that over time we become bored without interruptions.  We learn to crave excitement and when given the time to focus we seek out distractions.  How often do you find yourself checking Facebook, LinkedIn or Trade Me when you should be concentrating on a task?

The link between focus and performance

We have a natural ability to do two things at once .  We can run and listen to music, eat and read, or walk and talk. However, researcher at Stanford University found that multi-tasking (doing more than two things simultaneously) is less productive than single tasking. They found that people engaging in several streams of electronic information were less effective at paying attention, recalling information, and task switching than people who completed one thing at a time.

The effect of multi-tasking has been a popular subject and over the past twenty years several scientists have scanned the brain to better understand how it functions when multi-tasking.  Using MRI, scientists discovered that while our brain can successfully manage two tasks, it struggles when juggling three or more.  Their finding reflects our brain structure and our ability to access both the right and left frontal lobes when performing one or two tasks. However , when researchers introduced a third task they found that errors increased significantly and response times slowed creating a bottle-neck of information as the brain worked hard to process and prioritise. It seems that when doing three or more things our brain struggles to keep up.   While some Psychologists believe that the brain can be trained to multi-task more efficiently, research suggests that there is a physical limitation to how much information we can process at once.

Common habits that impact focus and concentration

It can be argued that to improve performance we have to re-learn how to single-task. But single tasking isn’t easy as there is so much going on around us. Smart devices and social media single handedly contribute to most our distractions.   We can’t seem to resist the lure of an incoming message. The design of modern workplaces with open plan spaces and the focus on collaborative working also contributes to interruptions.  In addition, the ways in which we work and schedule or time contribute to our short attention span. For example

  • Working too long without a break;
  • Scheduling meetings at any time of the day; and
  • Responding to emails or phone calls immediately.

These common habits impact our ability to concentrate and reduce our ability to focus for long periods of time.

How to improve your focus

One way to improve focus is to learn to be more mindful.  Mindfulness is the ability to manage our mind so that we can push aside distractions while we stay in the moment. It’s about letting go of what you have to do next and focusing on what you need to do right now. Many people find that when they stay in the moment and focus they achieve better results.

The ability to focus is a well-known performance enabler for athletes.  High performance athletes are encouraged to develop deep focus particularly when the ability to block out distractions can make the difference between winning and losing. When focused they are able to get into the zone and experience flow. In these moments they feel confident and in control. This same principle can be practiced in the workplace.

Below are a few tips on how you can relearn how to focus.

Make yourself comfortable:  To settle into your task on hand, try making yourself more comfortable.  Are you sitting comfortably?  Are you too hot or too cold?  Are you hungry or thirsty?  By addressing your comfort you can limit these unnecessary distractions.

Recognise when you work best: You are more likely to stay focused when your mind is fresh.  Find out when you are at your best and schedule your hardest tasks during that time.

Turn off notifications:  Engage the digital do not disturb feature on your phone or computer. This should seem simple but how many of us start a task and are constantly interrupted by email or other notifications.  These simple banners or beeps interrupt our thinking and it can take several minutes if not more to get back on task.

Create a routine: Block out certain parts of your day for emails, phone calls, meetings and social media and then ruthlessly stick to those times.

Slow down: If someone is talking to you stop and listen you never know when you might need that bit of information

Let people know that you’re trying to focus: Create a sign or signal so that others recognise that you don’t want to be interrupted.  If you can’t bring yourself to put up a do not disturb sign try moving to a quiet space, most open plan offices have rooms or spaces that are designated quiet zones.

Take a break: To improve your focus, try giving yourself a mental time out.  Take five minutes to refresh your mind you’ll feel better for it.

Break goals into manageable tasks:  By setting smaller more manageable tasks you only need to focus for shorter periods of time. Furthermore you may feel less overwhelmed and therefore less likely to seek out distractions.

Improve your well-being: To perform at your best you need to be at your best.

  • Get more sleep: The value of sleep is under-rated.  Lack of sleep can inhibit your ability to concentrate.
  • Exercise: Working out during the day can boost your focus.  Think of this time as an investment.
  • Make healthy food choices: You are what you eat.  By avoiding too much sugar or caffeine you can improve your focus.
  • Learn to say no: Our desire to please can often leave us with too little time.  Learn to say no so that you can focus your time on what’s important.

This article appeared in Human Resources, June/July 2015, Human Resources Institute of New Zealand.

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