Monday, October 14, 2013

Focusing and Single-Tasking

Despite the much lauded concept of 'multi-tasking', we truly don't get anything done without the ability to focus.  The greater our ability to minimize the distractions surrounding us, and concentrate our thoughts and efforts on the task at hand, the more productive we will be.  Unfortunately, today's workplace seems bent on creating more distractions than ever before and in rewarding people for responding to them.  However,  our long term success actually relies upon our ability to ignore those distractions, hone in on one thing... and get it done!  Results, in the long run, are what are going to take us from here, to there.

Most of us spend our days on sensory overload.  Our mind actively works on shutting down much of the sensory information we receive in an effort to help us to direct our attention to our more important needs. Consider the feel of the chair you're sitting on, the brush of your clothing on your skin, the weight of your glasses on your nose, the feel of the pen in your hand or the weight of your coffee cup.  These are all seemingly small sensations, but are those that we do not consciously register until or unless we formally direct our attention to them.  Our brain is constantly at work minimizing these distractions so that we can fully focus elsewhere.  The more distractions that exist around us, the more difficult a task this becomes until our brains become overwhelmed and far less effective in keeping those distractions from, well, distracting us!
Concentrate all your thoughts on the task at hand.   - Alexander Graham Bell
I remember when I was a child, the great fun we had playing with a magnifying glass.  Yes, this was before iPads and electronic devices took over.  A magnifying glass, the sun and a piece of wood and you were good to go for hours!  Harnessing the power of the sun and directing it to one focused beam of light created great power.  This is the power of learning to harness the mental ability of your brain and directing it in a single-minded fashion at a task.  It stands to reason then that the more effective we are at managing distractions, the more productive we will find ourselves to be.  Here are a couple of tips to help you get more from your day...
  • Shift your mindset from multi-tasking to single-tasking.  When we think that the goal is to be better at multi-tasking we are inadvertently giving ourselves permission to jump from task to task, thought to thought.  Distractions then seem to be a built-in part of this equation.  If our intent is on single-tasking instead, we do not welcome interruptions and are more consciously aware of the desire to avoid them.Our aim is to work optimally, which requires us to work in unbroken chunks of time.  You may choose to schedule your chunks in small 10 or 15 minutes segments, or in larger 60 minute ones, depending upon your environment, tasks and needs, but start chunking your time to focus on one thing at a time and see how much further it takes you.
  • Cultivate your mindfulness.  You want to be more aware of where your attention should be, and to gently nudge it back if and when you drift or begin getting pulled in another direction.  You need to retrain your brain to recognise that you actually want to remain focused and not be distracted!  Much of the way we live, allowing every electronic ping to take us off course, has told our brain that we welcome such diversion, which is why you are on hyper alert and can't help reaching for the device every time it makes a cough, burp or sputter!
  • Deliberately minimize distractions.  Don't make your brain have to do all of the work to shut distractions out and down.  Actively work to minimize some.  First of all, set your devices so they do not 'ping' you every time someone sends you an email or text.  If you know that you need an hour of uninterrupted time to focus on a project, put a sign up on your office door asking not to be disturbed, book yourself a meeting room away from others to help you concentrate or set up a red light/green light system.  I have a client who introduced this within their office to help people develop their focus.  All employees were given two flip cards, one green, one red, and were instructed when to use each.  In general, green meant they weren't working on anything critical and could be interrupted if needed, while the red card (which was used judiciously) indicated they were in deep-focus time and should not be disturbed.  A novel idea! 
Focus can be developed and strengthened, but it first needs to be recognised as a desired skill.  Our distractions are increasing at an alarming rate, necessitating the development of our ability to block out the extraneous messages.  Developing and strengthening your ability to focus is likely going to prove to be a decisive factor in your continued success.

For more reading on the concept of Focus and how to cultivate it...

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