Posts Tagged ‘focus’

Posted on: March 21st, 2017 by Julie Bestry | No Comments

“There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.”

~Lord Chesterfield on multitasking

Philip Dormer Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, had lots of bright things to say about productivity:

I recommend you to take care of the minutes, for the hours will take care of themselves. (productivity and task planning)

Choose your pleasures for yourself, and do not let them be imposed upon you. (productivity, priorities, and joy)

Know the true value of time; snatch, seize, and enjoy every moment of it. No idleness; no laziness; no procrastination; never put off till tomorrow what you can do today. (productivity, priorities, and procrastination)

The dude knew his stuff.

The Myth of Multitasking

Do you perform data entry tasks while on conference calls or answer email while attending workshops? Worse, do you half-listen to your children or staffers or co-workers while flipping through papers? Do you text while you drive? Information and activity overload may lead you to embrace the idea of multitasking to improve efficiency. Don’t give in to the urge.

Multitasking not only fails to make you more productive; it increases all kinds of risks.

From the mid-1990s through the late 2000’s, studies published widely, from NeuroImage and the Journal of Experimental Psychology, and research at the University of Michigan, Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging, and the University of California at Irvine all reported that multitasking wastes time and leads to distraction, errors, and memory lapses. You may think you’re doing double-duty, but your brain is actually “task switching,” jumping back and forth between multiple attention orientations, doing each thing less efficiently and less effectively. Reply to a client email while listening to a teleclass, and you will miss salient details of both.

Giving up the myth of multitasking can be difficult. Intellectually, we may understand task switching, or know that checking social media is unproductive, or texting while driving is dangerous, but your senses try to convince you otherwise. It still feels like doing only one thing is wasting time. The longer you go on trying to do multiple things at once, the harder it will be to bring yourself to focus on anything, whether it’s client concerns, the document you’re writing, or the road ahead of you.

Embrace the following tips to reduce your inclination toward multitasking:

1) Declutter Your Physical Space

Physical clutter overwhelms you even when you are not consciously aware of it. Neuroscientists at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute found that disorder in your visual field limits your brain’s ability to process visual stimuli. If you can’t fully focus on just one thing, you’re creating your own attention deficit.

Start by eliminating anything from the “prime real estate” of your immediate work area that can’t help you with what you’re doing. File your papers away except for the folder of documents you’re working on right now. If you’re working on your computer, move your other digital devices to a counter behind you, or even to another room.

2) Declutter Your Digital Workspace

Do you use multiple monitors with different content on each? Remember, the more you see, the less your brain can think about any one thing. Turn off your notifications, those CNN-like Breaking News tickers that tell you that someone has replied to your tweet or that there’s yet another political brouhaha. (The tweets and the news will all still be there when you’re done with your focused work.)

Clear your digital desktop so that instead of dozens (or hundreds) of individual files and documents on your screen, you’ve got a handful of categorized folders and sub-folders. (Or, if you’re less hierarchical and more trusting of search vs. hierarchy than Paper Doll, move everything to one searchable folder.)

Opt for a minimalist desktop. Instead of a complex photo of your last vacation, try a more calming desktop wallpaper from a site like Simple Desktops.

Gizmodo recently published an excellent field guide to Create a Minimalist Desktop to Be Proud Of. You don’t have to go to the ends of the minimalist desktop spectrum, as Joshua Fields Millburn of The Minimalists recently did with his desktop, but do make things easier on your eyes.

This is just a taste of what you can do to increase your digital focus. In future posts, we’ll be talking about ways to hide your browser tabs, blur the focus on any program except the one in which you’re working, and take whatever program you’re using to full-screen.

3) Shush the Distractions In Your Environment

Close your door. Post a sign telling your colleagues you’re taking a page out of Cal Newport’s buzzy productivity book and that you’ll be doing Deep Work for the next 90 minutes. Leave them some pretty sticky notes and a nice Sharpie so they can plaster your door with messages.

Some of us need complete silence. Many of us need white noise. Check out the Paper Doll classic post, 11 Ways to Organize Your Focus With Ambient Noise, to find your sweet spot.

4) Shush the Distractions In Your Head

If you’re worried about your children, your job security, that bump on the back of your arm, or even the project you’re trying to complete, you won’t be able to focus. Anxiety is a shockingly bad productivity tool.

Try Box Breathing, a Navy SEAL technique for calming yourself down with simple breathing, illustrated beautifully below by QuietKit (which also has a nifty Meditation for Beginners program).

When feeling overwhelmed, simply:

Inhale for four seconds as you watch the blue circle expand.
Pause, with your lungs full, for four seconds as the circle stays expanded.
Exhale for four seconds as you watch the circle shrink.
Pause, with your lungs full, for four seconds as the circle stays contracted.

Whether you’re searching for a web-based model, a computer program, or an app for your phone, tablet, or watch, mindfulness solutions abound, including:

5) Schedule Time To Focus

One of the most popular time management methods, The Pomodoro Technique developed by Francesco Cirillo, helps multitaskers strengthen their focusing skills and single-tasking muscles. The basic premise is simple: select a task and focus on it, and only it, for 25 minutes. When the timer rings, take a five-minute break before resuming work for another 25 minutes. For every two hours you work, take a longer break.

This method, named for the once-ubiquitous Italian tomato-shaped kitchen timer, encompasses other time management strategies and tools, and has practically become an industry of its own. Download the free e-book to learn how to use the Pomodoro Technique, or buy it in tangible form. You also can purchase an official timer or use the online Pomodoro countdown clock. And, of course, there’s an app for that. (Actually, there are many Pomodoro-based apps and web-based applets, including Focus Booster, Focus Time, the easy-peasy Tomato Timer, and 30/30.)

There’s nothing magical about the block of 25 minutes. It’s short enough to get past the innate tendency to procrastinate, and surely you can do anything for 25 minutes. However, for tasks requiring a greater depth and duration of attention, you need adequate time to make headway. In those situations, try a modified version of the Pomodoro Technique.

Turn off your message alerts, send incoming calls straight to voicemail, and set your timer for 45 minutes. When the alarm sounds, take a ten-minute break. Rest your eyes and hydrate after every Pomodoro, and stop for a snack and some human interaction every three hours. Refresh your mind by listening to others without the nagging urge to check email, stock prices, and message updates.

After some practice, you will likely find that your concentration has improved and your thoughts flow more freely when unencumbered by competing demands. It’s a gift to enjoy the present. I bet Lord Chesterfield knew that, too.