I recently attended a meeting where a colleague, David Elfering, offered his review of Johann Hari’s book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention – and How to Think Deeply Again. Hari suggests several causes for why people have difficulty maintaining concentration and achieving the intense level of focus that he terms the “flow state.” This inability to focus not only compromises productivity and creativity. It can also have serious repercussions for employees’ well-being.
The presentation got me thinking about the changes over the last two years that I’ve seen affect my and my colleagues’ ability to reach (and stay in) the flow state. Here are my top “focus busters” – and some ideas for how to minimize their impact.
For decades, consultants praised multitasking as the key to greater productivity. In fact, I remember the days when women especially were expected to multitask to a high degree. (It was supposedly an “evolutionary advantage” from millennia of caring for small children while simultaneously accomplishing household tasks.)
For most humans, however, true multitasking (i.e. focusing on two or more tasks simultaneously) is impossible. What we refer to as multitasking is the ability to switch between tasks with minimal loss of effectiveness. But what is “minimal”? Research shows that switching always takes time. The more complex the tasks and the less familiar we are with them, the greater the time needed. Even for the best switchers who re-focus in a few tenths of a second, the costs of repeated multi-tasking add up quickly, devouring as much as 40% of a person’s productive time. Task switching also increases the risk of errors, since “rule activation” for the new task also takes time.
With the pandemic and the switch to working remotely, even “ordinary” tasks are often more complicated than they once were. Additionally, the blurring of the line between “at home” and “at work” means there are even more tasks vying for our attention. With that in mind, here are a few tips to help minimize the cost effect:
- Group similar tasks together and allocate time to handle them – and nothing else. If certain tasks are boring or onerous, create several shorter sessions throughout the day.
- Eliminate temptations to multi-task by turning off notifications, closing email, etc. Politely communicate your Do Not Disturb status to colleagues and clients.
- Give yourself permission to say, “Not now.” Unless something is genuinely an emergency, let it wait. Just remember to circle back to those deferred tasks.
While the average length of meetings during the pandemic decreased by 20%, the number of meetings attended rose by 13.5%. Of course, many of these get-togethers have legitimate purposes; but for many socially isolated individuals, they also provide much-needed human interaction. Without the need to gather in a single place, attendee lists have ballooned. The stress resulting from this change is so profound that we’ve coined a term for it: Zoom fatigue.
The disruption caused by too-frequent meetings goes far beyond the time spent in them. (Re)scheduling, prep, and follow-up all add to our to-do lists. Additionally, employees often postpone tackling tasks that require greater focus because they know they won’t have time to finish them before their next appointment. Even worse, many workers try to reclaim their lost time by working during online meetings – a worst-case scenario for multitasking!
Obviously, some meetings are genuinely necessary; and with proper preparation, they can be more productive. Before meetings take over the entire day, try these ideas:
- Try substituting emails or recorded presentations for meetings primarily intended to share information. That way, individuals can “attend” at their convenience. Have a forum where people can ask questions or make comments.
- Limit meeting sizes, especially those needed for decision-making and creative collaboration.
- Embrace asynchronous collaboration. There are lots of different tools available to allow team members to share ideas whenever and from wherever they want. Many are reasonably priced or even free.
- Set limits on the number of meetings employees must attend daily or weekly. You might even consider a company-wide “no meetings” day each week.
Technology is supposed to make our lives easier; and honestly, it has been a godsend during the pandemic. But just like online meetings, the number of communications we receive daily continues to increase. Emails, phone calls, texts, group chats, online collaboration platforms, schedulers, social media, and more all vie for our attention – not to mention the dings, chirps, and trills that herald notifications from all the above.
Technology also blurs the line between home and work by it easier to stay connected. Too often, this leads to expectations that people will be universally available. Technology, especially social media, also trains our brains for shorter attention spans. All this “noise” can have a devastating effect on our ability to focus.
To paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, Technology was made for the people, and not the people for technology. To take back control of your digital doorway:
- Turn off notifications when you need to work on a project that requires a sustained flow state.
- Use focus settings built into devices to create disruption-free zones in your day. The bonus is that many of these settings automatically notify the sender that there will be a delay in response.
- Edit recipient lists to avoid unnecessary CCs. While group communications certainly have their place, if a thread leads to a matter that involves only a few group participants, start a new thread with just those recipients. If people genuinely need an FYI update, consider sending a single update at intervals.
- Resist the urge to respond to every message immediately. Newer, less-highly trafficked communication channels are popular because they evoke a faster response. (Texts do, as did emails before them, and phone calls before them.) But seriously, how many of those “urgent” communications actually are urgent?
Many employees cite greater schedule flexibility as one of the biggest “positives” of the shift to remote working. While some flexibility is certainly beneficial, too much actually has the opposite effect. A work “routine” cues us to focus. Chopping the day into lots of shorter segments limits our ability to get into and sustain a flow state.
Constantly changing schedules also makes it harder for team leaders to assign tasks equitably and ensure business and client needs are met. That can lead to tension and even conflict between co-workers. Lack of a routine can also interfere with sleep cycles and other habits that promote wellness, such as healthy eating and exercise. Finally, mixing work and home life too freely blurs the lines between them, making it more difficult to give quality attention to either.
- Chart your natural energy cycle and schedule your tasks to take advantage of natural “high focus” periods.
- Find ways to build focus cues into your routine. For example, having a home office space – even a small one – can make it easier to settle into a productive mindset. Even something as simple as changing clothes or getting a cup of coffee can do the trick.
- Give yourself permission to keep working when you’re in the zone. Just make sure your total number of work hours doesn’t gradually creep higher and higher.
Beginning in March 2020, American workers stepped up with extraordinary determination, resilience, and yes focus, to respond to a radical shift in how we work. Two years later, however, it’s time to recognize that no one can continue in crisis mode indefinitely. It’s time to stop reacting and start making thoughtful choices about how we want and need to act going forward.