In the past, I have been very good at focusing. But in the last few years, I have noticed a real decline in my ability to do so. I’ve been finding my thoughts jump from topic to topic like clicking the hyperlinks in the middle of online articles. My retention of new information hasn’t been as reliable as it was before. At first, I thought, “You’re in your forties, so this is age related,” but upon reflecting on my behaviors it made me realize I have created some bad habits and diminished my ability to focus. It is time to stretch and rebuild the focus muscle and I thought I’d share some ideas I’m exploring in this post.
Most of us believe we are good at multitasking, and that we have to multitask to fulfill what is expected of us. “Multitasking means trying to perform two or more tasks concurrently, which typically leads to repeatedly switching between tasks (i.e., task switching)…” explains Kevin P. Madore, PhD and Anthony D. Wagner, PhD in “Multicosts of Multitasking.” The science shows our brains cannot actually perform multiple high function tasks at the same time, like listening in a meeting and responding to an email. Instead, the brain is constantly switching from one task to another.
Some studies have shown the more we multitask, the worse our ability to focus gets. Neuropsychologist Cynthia Kubu, PhD said in the Clevelend Clinic article “Why Multitasking Doesn’t Work”, “‘If we’re constantly attempting to multitask, we don’t practice tuning out the rest of the word to engage in deeper processing and learning.’” The article further explains the more you multitask, even if it is checking Facebook/TikTok/Twitter while watching tv, you diminish your ability to focus when you are performing only 1 task. Well, I am guilty as charged. How about you?
Lack of focus impacts your work in several ways. You retain less information. You are more prone to mistakes. You are less efficient; the opposite effect from what you are trying to accomplish with multitasking. There have been estimates that it takes between 10-40 seconds to refocus every time your brain switches tasks, extending the time you spend on each task. With all this brain activity bouncing from idea to idea, it is no wonder you feel mentally exhausted and scattered at the end of the day.
Let’s consider some habit changes to regain the power of focus:
- Turn off notifications. Yes, you have heard this before, but this means do more than turnoff the pings from Outlook. Your technology recognizes you need to focus and has options-built in. iPhones have a Focus setting. Do you need the notifications on from all the apps you use? Instead of being called to apps on your phone, you can open that game app or email when you have time to engage, not when you are prompted.
- Block time to focus and stick to it. Plan to work on 1 thing, and don’t worry about the other projects during that time. You may not be able to get the whole project done, but block 20 minutes to focus on that one thing. Then you’ll have 10 minutes left to check email before your next appointment. When you have the time preserved it is like a sprint. You can challenge yourself to see how much you can get done in that time. Sometimes longer blocks of time feel like a luxury and you aren’t as focused.
- You may be thinking “I try this, but I end up allowing other people or things to cannibalize the time.” By using smaller blocks, there is still availability to respond to people who reach out to you.
- Some projects need more than 20 minutes to really get your head into, so when you block those times try to put yourself in an environment where you can’t be distracted. Close your door or be in a different location. I love working on airplanes because I get so much done. Create that airplane environment in the office. Have your snack, beverage, and minimal tools needed at hand, then go heads down.
- Schedule office hours. Often, we let our focus time be taken up by other people because it is the only time we have on our calendars where they can reach us. By preserving time on your calendars where colleagues know they can pop in, you can preserve other time as focus time. During these office hours, do work from which you can easily be interrupted, like catching up on email.
- Do not start the day in email. It has been shown that when you start your day reading email, it puts you in a reactive frame of mind for the day. Start your day by tackling something on your to do list so you build momentum and feelings of accomplishment.
- Organize your day around your biorhythms. There are certain times of the day when you perform certain tasks best. People will often refer to when they are “on.” I find mornings is when I perform administrative tasks best, my brain is waking up as I knock these tasks out. The afternoon is when I think more creatively; this is when I write faster, brainstorm better, etc. If I try to write an article first thing in the morning it takes me three times longer. Plan to do tasks when you find your brain performs them best. We can’t always make this schedule work, but try as much as you can.
- Meditate. This may sound fluffy, but the effects of meditation have been widely discussed over the last couple years. Start with 5–10-minute sessions to work on focusing on one thing – your breath. At ConvergenceCoaching, we started group meditations and individually some use the Calm app and their guided meditation really helps with focus. You might find it frustrating at first, but like when starting a workout regime, it shows you where you are weak and you will build strength with practice.
Feeling harried or busy feels like a constant state of being, and multitasking feels like the only solution. Remember, you will enhance efficiency, quality and memory (so we don’t have to follow up with more questions) when you are present in the moment and focus. Let’s relearn to focus together.
All the best,