You squeeze in an hour of focused time between meetings to work on the strategic plan you’ve been putting off for weeks.
You open your planning file, but your mind drifts back to the contentious meeting you had with a disgruntled client. You’re distracted by the stack of urgent renewals sitting on your desk. Feeling anxious about everything you need to get done, you check your email. You get sidetracked by a message from your biggest client, and before you know it, the 15-minute warning alarm rings for your next meeting. Frustrated with your lack of progress, you postpone the task for another week.
If you’re finding it increasingly difficult to focus, you’re not alone. According to research conducted by the Policy Institute and Centre for Attention Studies at King’s College in London, nearly half of respondents (49%) said their attention span is shorter than it used to be, compared with around a quarter (23%) who believe they are just as attentive as they’ve always been. The struggle with distraction is not a problem just for the young. The King’s College study also reveals it is the dominant feeling among the middle aged too, with 56% of 35- to 54-year-olds thinking their attention spans have worsened.
Impact on Performance
The problem is that the inability to stay focused on a single task takes a toll on individuals’ cognitive capabilities and efficiency. A small-scale study for Hewlett Packard, conducted by Glenn Wilson, of London’s Institute of Psychiatry, found that persistent interruptions and distractions resulted in a temporary 10-point decline is participants’ IQ.
Our brains are single-minded. During any one second, the brain is concentrating on one thing. People may feel like they’re doing two things at once, but they’re not. The brain is switching back and forth between tasks, and the switching cost is high. According to research conducted at the University of California, Irvine, it takes an average of 25 minutes to get back to the original task after an interruption. This is compounded by the finding that the average office worker gets only 11 minutes between interruptions.
Barriers to Focus
The human brain is wired for distractibility and is continuously pausing and scanning the surroundings for something outside our primary area of focus that may need attention. In ancient times, vigilance helped ensure survival. But in the modern work environment where there aren’t imminent physical dangers, our brains work against us as we struggle to concentrate while sitting in meetings, on the phone, or at the computer.
To compound the problem, we live in a world with more distractions competing for our attention than at any other time in history. In his testimony before the U.S. Senate, Google engineer Tristan Harris summed up the battle: “Your distraction is their fuel. They learn what most engages you, and they target it ruthlessly. They train you to crave the rewards their sites offer. You can try having self-control, but there are a thousand engineers on the other side of the screen working against you.”
Our brain is programmed to seek immediate rewards. This bias toward the quick payoff makes it difficult to stick with tasks that may not yield results for days or months. So instead of staying focused on the longer-term work, we opt for the immediate reward, such as responding to a customer, helping a colleague, or crossing a quick item off the to-do list.
Focus work often challenges our brains, and that can feel uncomfortable. When we experience insecurity, boredom, anxiety, or other unsettling feelings, we’re internally triggered to seek relief. Distractions like email, social media, and many online services provide the immediate escape our brains seek.
Focus also forces us to choose. It requires saying yes to one thing and no to something else. The more pressure we feel to do it all, the harder it is to choose and the more likely we are to overcommit and convince ourselves that multitasking is a good option.
Taking Back Control
In a workplace where partial attention is the norm, people become victims of their environment and lose their ability to focus over time. The good news is focus is like a muscle: you can let it atrophy or build it and keep it strong. These five practices will help you regain and maintain focus:
Work the muscle regularly. Start by determininghow long you can stay focused on a single task that requires absolute concentration before becoming distracted. Use this time as your baseline and gradually work your way up to longer periods. If you feel like quitting, do five minutes more. This will help you push beyond your frustration and build concentration. With practice, you’ll improve your skills quickly.
Know your triggers. We tend to underestimate the power of triggers in our environment and overestimate our self-control. Rather than counting on Herculean discipline, remove as many triggers as possible. For example, get your cell out of sight and turn off the ringer. Put your office phone on DND, turn off the alarms and notifications on your computer, and work in full-screen mode so there are no distractions. Make it clear that you will not be interrupted when you’re in focus time. To make sure people perceive you as accessible, consider implementing daily office hours when your door is open and you’re available for conversation.
Block focus time. Schedule it on your calendar and include what you plan on accomplishing. If you only say focus time, it’s easy to dismiss it and move it to another day. Block the time when you’re fresh and alert. People often fall into the trap of thinking they’ll get the miscellaneous tasks out of the way first and then be able to concentrate. What often happens is people get caught up in the pressures of the day and the time for focus never comes.
Set a realistic limit. Focusing too long can backfire on you. Research indicates that performance starts to decline after 45-50 minutes and that short breaks allow people to maintain focus on a task without losing quality.
Measure results. Your brain is naturally curious about whether you’re improving or not, so put a simple process in place that will give you feedback. Tracking results will keep the goal on your radar, and seeing progress will help you stay motivated.
A Competitive Advantage
In the age of distraction, focus is the 21st-century superpower. Professionals can concentrate on the work that matters most while achieving more in less time and with higher quality. Improved productivity leads to feelings of self-efficacy and accomplishment and enhances motivation and job satisfaction. But more importantly, focus is the gateway to the deeper thinking required to make smarter decisions, think critically, solve problems, and innovate. With it, people gain the stick-to-itiveness to push past the obvious answers and develop the innovative solutions needed to differentiate themselves and their organizations.