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The Two Things Killing Your Ability to Focus
It’s not only the fact that you are looking at a screen for half day, but that certainly isn’t helping. Two major challenges are destroying our ability to focus.
First, we increasingly are overwhelmed with distractions flying at us from various connected devices. Smartphone and tablet use is spiking, and we now use digital media for an average of over 12 hours per day. This hyperconnected state does not allow us to process, recharge, and refocus.
Second, we rely excessively on meetings as the default form of interaction with other people at work. Studies indicate that we spend anywhere from 35–55 percent of our time, and sometimes much more, in meetings. If we want to stay focused on truly meaningful activity, something has to change.
The single biggest mistake most of us make is in how we start the day. Do you immediately roll over and start checking email on your phone? Bad idea, according to Stanford psychologist Emma Seppälä, author of The Happiness Track. As she said in an email interview, “By constantly engaging our stress response [when we check our phones], we ironically are impairing the very cognitive abilities — like memory and attention — that we so desperately need.”
So what should you do? Start trying a simple mindfulness practice when you wake up, which can be anything from quietly taking a few deep breaths to meditating for 20 or 30 minutes. Dr. Seppälä explains why this is so important: “Meditation is a way to train your nervous system to calm despite the stress of our daily lives. When you are calmer, you are more emotionally intelligent and make better decisions.” Not a bad way to start the day.
Another common mistake is letting other people fill in your calendar, particularly in the morning. You have to make sure you leave enough time to accomplish complex, creative tasks. As entrepreneur, investor, and Y Combinator cofounder Paul Graham described in “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule,” his now famous 2009 post, “a single meeting can blow [an entire day] by breaking it into two pieces, each too small to do anything hard in.” Creative tasks require dedicated time when you are fresh, not a few distracted minutes squeezed in between meetings. We all love to think we can multitask effectively, but research shows conclusively that we are terrible at it.
Instead of struggling to accomplish what matters, you can take advantage of your body’s natural rhythms. Focus on complex, creative tasks in the morning; these things will tend to be ones you accomplish individually or with 2–3 other people. Push all other meetings to the afternoon. These simpler, execution-focused meetings with larger groups are easier to handle.
Is your desk a mess? What about the desktop of your computer? Your smartphone’s home screen? These areas might seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but your environment affects your productivity and quality of work in ways we are just starting to understand. Tidying up has a big impact, as indicated by the runaway success of Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. And it’s not just for civilians. When (now retired) Navy SEAL Admiral William McRaven gave a commencement address at the University of Texas at Austin in 2014, his most important piece of advice was to make your bed.
Keeping a clean work environment, both physical and digital, is essential to your ability to stay focused. At work, put everything in a drawer. Create folders on your desktop to get rid of all the random files, and keep only the most important 8–12 apps on your home screen. Turn off all unnecessary notifications (here are tips for Android phones and for Apple phones). Don’t let yourself get distracted by all the clutter — you will stay focused for much longer.
How many people were in your last meeting? More important, how many of them were actually involved in the creation or fulfillment of deliverables from that meeting? This question might seem like a strange way to stay focused, but countless studies, starting with this 2015 HBR research, have shown the benefits of smaller teams. Focus and responsibility are more challenging with too many people — which is how you end up with folks staring down silently at their laptops for an entire meeting.
To stay focused, keep your team focused. Limit the number of people in any meeting to eight or fewer unless it is a meeting that is purely informational. Make sure each meeting results in action items, a timeline for each action item, and one person who is responsible for ensuring that it gets done. That one person is the directly responsible individual, a powerful technique that Apple uses to effectively manage its vast workforce.
One reason so many people have a hard time staying focused is a lack of margin. You cannot be on top of your game if you run from meeting to meeting. Switching tasks and contexts is difficult for the human brain at any time, and that ability degrades throughout the day. For busy executives, this means up to 70 percent of their time at work is wasted.
If you want to avoid wasting time and burning out, add buffer time between each meeting. For every 45–60 minutes you spend in a meeting, make sure to take 15 minutes or more to process, reflect, and prioritize. This will keep you from wasting time. It will also avoid the burned-out feeling that many of us have at the end of each long day. And it should be an easy sell to your other managers: They will only benefit by also adopting this scheduling tactic.
Staying focused at work is not easy, but it is doable. These five practical techniques will help you stay on task, accomplish what matters, and enjoy yourself more throughout the day.
How to find your ideal space for focus, collaboration or creativity.
Where should you go? That depends on what you are trying to accomplish.
If you want to promote collaboration, work at home.
If you and your team need to connect and collaborate, a home — or, if that’s logistically difficult, a warmer, cozier space that invites relaxation — might be your ideal setting for a brainstorming session. Conversations flow better when you’re lounging on sofas or grabbing slices of pizza over a kitchen counter.
If you need to focus, work in an isolated space.
Working in an environment that feels like home might relax you, but in some cases, what you really need is to persevere without distractions. That’s when an isolated space can set you up to succeed. If your workplace isn’t set up for that, make do with what you have — find a conference room for those stretches when you really need to put your head down, or ask if you can work from home to meet a pressing deadline.
If you need to spark creativity, hit the road.
There’s evidence that “perceived spatial distance ” from a task can spark creativity, but you don’t necessarily need to travel a long distance to view a problem from a whole different lens. If you want chaos and excitement, you could spend a weekend in a bustling city, or you could just visit a bus terminal. If you want to learn about a different culture, you might start with a new cuisine, or visit a new neighborhood. As Scott Barry Kaufman, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Imagination Institute and author of Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, once explained: “Unusual experiences are good for the brain.”
The next time you feel overwhelmed by a never-ending to-do list, or confused by the purpose of your project, or frustrated that your team is hitting a roadblock, consider the power of your environment. Sometimes, to unlock your best work, you simply need a change in scenery.
Marie Kondo’s tips for tidying your work space.
How do you apply the KonMari Method to workplaces?
The first step in the KonMari Method is to imagine your ideal lifestyle, and you can adapt the question to, “What is your ideal work style?”
There are five categories in the KonMari Method — clothing, books, papers, komono and sentimental items — and although clothing is not applicable in the workplace, you should still work through the rest of the categories in this order.
The important question to ask when going through your items is: Does this spark joy? If you feel like “joy” doesn’t resonate, adapt the question and ask yourself if this item will move you toward the direction you want to go in your career.
For people who consider themselves disorganized, what’s your advice for them to tidy their desks and keep it that way?
Designate a spot for each and every item on your desk — even tiny things like paper clips or memo pads need a home to return to! By doing this, you create a structure within your work space. One final tip: Include a file for pending documents that need to be attended to!