Practical speak for staying focused in the office

My greatest weakness?

Focus and attention are aspects of my life that I think about each day as I try navigate through tasks and interactions with others. By nature, I’m a very task-driven and goal oriented person. I told my wife just this week that while this can be one of my strengths, it’s also my greatest weakness. I’m so caught-up in thinking about the next task to be completed that I’m often not able to pause and enjoy the success and moment of the now. During a typical work day I can struggle to remain focused on any one task because so many people and devices are competing for my attention.

I’m not alone.

There’s a daily war for our attention from other people, computing devices, marketing ads, etc. I was recently reminded of it in my own family through a couple of events. During a recent movie night at home, each family member showed up to watch the movie with a personal electronic device (phone, tablet, laptop). Apparently spending two hours watching a single screen was difficult.

In another event, when we returned from a week-long vacation without cell phones, no one spoke for hours after first getting connected back “on the grid”. The moment cellular service was accessible was like drinking water after long hot day working in the sun. The phones started sounding with alerts and whistles aSquirrelnd our attention was quickly taken away from the present. Everyone except the driver of course. 🙂

Adults like to pick on teenagers with focus problems by quoting stats about video game usage and text messaging counts. Teenagers are known for using thousands of text messages per month but hardly any actual voice minutes. But adults have their own challenges for attention and focus. Think about conference calls at work where people who multi-task cause a speaker to have to repeat a question. What about co-workers that stop what they are doing every time a new email arrives? How many laptops were in your last meeting?

Learning more.

I’m reading the book Focus – The Hidden Driver of Excellence by Daniel Goleman to explore and learn more about the science behind focus and attention. Goleman says the following about multitasking, “Then there’s what people think of as ‘spitting’ attention in multitasking which cognitive science tells us is fiction too. Rather than having a stretchable balloon of attention to deploy in tandem, we have a narrow, fixed pipeline to allot. Instead of splitting it, we actually switch rapidly. Continual switching saps attention from full, concentrated engagement.” This seems obvious but the battle for concentrated engagement is something we face everyday. How do we fight the battle?

Practical advice for work day attention deficit disorder.

I don’t submit that I’ve mastered each of these items. But I have used each of these tactics at various times to help myself stay more focused on the immediate task or meeting at-hand. I see this as a good list of tips for keeping our concentration and focus.

1. Don’t take your laptop to a meeting

What message do we send the meeting organizer and other participants when we show up to a meeting and start working on other things with our laptop?  How can we fully participate in a meeting and add-value if we are half-focused? If this piece of advice is difficult to follow then we may need to ask ourselves if we really need to be a participant in the meeting.

I know some people show up with a laptop to take notes. But others clearly do not. I like revert back to the traditional pen and paper. I take notes about the meeting and later transcribe to my computer. This isn’t the most efficient work habit since it involves rekeying something. But I find that it does help me to concentrate on the meeting at-hand and participate more. In theory doing something like this will help our knowledge absorption and memory of the meeting as well.

2. Leave email closed during the time of day you want to concentrate.

Goleman quotes a research group from Carnegie Mellon University, “The most precious resource in a computer system is no longer its processor, memory, disk, or network, but rather human attention”. Despite the ability of our equipment to have multiple programs open we are still limited in many ways to our own attention.

One aspect of our daily work routines that challenges many people is the ‘new email’ indicator. Visual pop-ups and sounds pull our attention away from a current work task. We lose context on our task when we check email and ultimately take longer to complete that task. Things that are more important yield to things that are immediate.

If you are working on something really important and easily distracted by email then my advice is to close email or at least disable notifications. Save email for specific times during the day.

3. Leave social media sites for home or lunch

I don’t struggle with this one. There’s plenty to do during the workday and social media sites don’t cross my mind. I do use twitter and LinkedIn to check items related to business industry, but I don’t do any personal social media at work.  If you are challenged by this then look for ways to reduce the reminder. Maybe that means putting the mobile device in a drawer.  Maybe it means installing a browser add-on like Stay Focused to help limit the time spent on certain sites.

4. Find a way to minimize multi-tasking during conference calls.

We’ve all been on calls when someone says “I’m sorry can you repeat that?” Certainly there are times when this is legitimate because conference calls can have audio challenges. But it’s often because the person is multitasking and not paying attention.

I’ll admit I struggle with this one. The computer screen is visually in front of me during a call and it’s way to easy to get pulled into email or some other distraction. A few techniques I use to keep myself focused are to stand-up from my chair or walk away from my desk (if on mobile phone). This is a simple way to stay more focused on the conversation. Another idea is to turn off the computer monitor and break out the pen and paper.

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