How to Find More Focus at Work

After graduate school, before joining the faculty at UT-Austin, I took a job as the editor of a trade journal. Month after month I was challenged to orchestrate the myriad moving parts of a magazine, on deadline and under budget. It was always hectic, sometimes overwhelming, and occasionally maddening. But I loved it. Having begun my career on a daily newspaper, I get along quite well with deadlines. When I left the trade journal for the university, my boss told me that I was the most focused person she had ever met.

It’s true. I am at my best in deep focus. That’s why I love the intense, intimate work of coaching. And why I love to write. They are activities where I have to shut out the world and bring to bear the full weight of all my faculties. They require my full presence and total attention.

But as we all know, our on-demand world conspires against full presence and total attention. According to Maggie Jackson, author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age:

Nearly a third of workers feel they often do not have time to reflect on or process the work they do. More than half typically have to juggle too many tasks simultaneously and/or are so often interrupted that they find it difficult to get work done. One yearlong study found that workers not only switch tasks every three minutes during their workday but that nearly half the time they interrupt themselves. (p. 17)

I know from my work with attorneys how quickly the competing–and escalating–expectations of client service and business development can dissipate your concentration and drain your energy.

What to do?

First of all, give up the myth of multi-tasking. Thanks to twenty-first-century neuroscience, we know a lot more now about how the brain works. And the research shows that there is no such thing as “multi-tasking.” Our brain does not conduct its activities simultaneously. It works sequentially. When we think we’re multi-tasking, we’re actually zigzagging and backtracking between different tasks. This constant “switching,” it turns out, is terribly inefficient and even detrimental to higher-level activities. It actually costs you extra time and diminished results.

Second of all, start training your attention.

Attention is the earnest direction of your mind. It is, metaphorically speaking, how and when you “turn” your mind. It has three functional components:

  1. Alerting is the awareness that helps us sense our environment by registering stimuli. (As in “email alert.”)
  2. Orienting is the focus that helps us respond to our environment by selecting information. (Just because a phone rings, it doesn’t mean you have to answer it; you choose to answer it.)
  3. The executive network directs judgment, planning, and big-picture thinking. (What Stephen Covey categorizes as “important” rather than “urgent.”)

In general, we are too adept at alerting, too timid at orienting, and too remote from the executive network. It’s very easy to squander our most precious commodity, our “undivided attention.”

So think of your attentional training as pilates for the brain. Your goals are to:

  • notice fewer stimuli
  • respond more selectively
  • spend more time in big-picture thinking

In other words, set aside the BlackBerry, set your policies (how you will or won’t respond, under what circumstances), and schedule time for strategizing.

Here are my top 10 tactics for working with more focused attention. They’ll help you to produce higher-quality work product, increase your productivity, and prevent burnout:

1. Re-commit to your goals
Itemize them, prioritize them, and write them down.

2. Refuse interruptions
Sometimes they’re necessary; sometimes, they’re just a timesuck. Respond accordingly.

3. Quit multi-tasking
Every time you “look away,” it’s harder to re-focus on the initial task.

4. Schedule everything
Take control: chunk similar activities and plan strategically, as much as you can.

5. Write a “NOT to-do” list
Get ruthless about cutting out unnecessary habits.

6. Do nothing for 15 minutes every day
Clear mind space for strategic reflection.

7. Create explicit workplace processes that encourage big-picture thinking
Train your culture away from task- and crisis-orientation.

8. Mark boundaries
Create simple rituals that respectfully demarcate your workday from your personal life.

9. Pick up a good book
Challenging fare, especially non-fiction, will hone your deep focusing skills.

10. Declutter your workplace
Create a visual space that reflects and inspires a clear head

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