That was good advice when your fourth grade teacher provided it, and it definitely applies now, in a world where your ability to pay attention on the job could be the key to your success.
Maura Thomas wants to help. She is a speaker and trainer on individual and corporate productivity, attention, and effectiveness. She’s also the author of Personal Productivity Secrets and the upcoming Work without Walls: An Executive’s Guide to Attention Management, Productivity, and the Future of Work. Her mission is to help each of us overcome our attention deficit.
“People struggle with their attention span, and their need to control it,” Thomas says. Giving in to distractions means you probably won’t get your important task done in the allotted time, and even if you do, it won’t be your best work.
The culprit: Technology
The crux of the problem, as you might expect, is technology, Thomas says, adding, “I don’t say that as someone who is anti-technology. As great as technology and its benefits are in our lives, it also poses some challenges. With technology, there has always been an adjustment period, but our ability to adapt isn’t keeping up with the speed that technology moves.”
The work environments we create – with our email open and popping in every 30 seconds, with open floor plans and their noise, with our phones only inches away at all times – are distracting and further eroding our already limited attention spans.
As she explains, “We don’t fully appreciate the shift from industrial work to knowledge work. Knowledge work means the raw material is brainpower, in terms of inspiration and creativity and motivation. In a fast-paced, frantic, distracted environment, people’s stress levels are elevated, they feel frazzled, and that affects the output of their brains. There are times for collaboration, but for the most part, most knowledge worker jobs require some period of sustained focus.”
Get into the bubble
Thomas’ advice is to set all distraction aside, for at least a few minutes every hour throughout the day.
“Put yourself in a little bubble,” she recommends. “If you are in an open space, put on a headset with white noise or nature sounds. Close your email. Turn off alerts. Put your phone on do not disturb. For 15 minutes every hour, do just the task at hand. That is a great way to begin to work your focus muscle, and the more you work it the stronger it gets.”
If 15 minutes is impossible, try it for 10. But your goal should be to get to 25 or 30 minutes of focused work each hour. She also suggests taking time – daily if possible – to give yourself a break from technology. Anything from a short walk after work to a full weekend day doing something you enjoy, but without your phone or other technology tagging along.
Employees who manage their attention span make for a more productive organization, Thomas says, although she concedes it’s nearly impossible to measure that quantitatively. But, she argues, “Qualitative benefits are just as important. It can come down to how you feel about your job. Do you feel more in control and less stressed? Do you feel more productive? These may be arbitrary, but in knowledge work, this matters. Your mental state contributes to your raw material, your brain.”
Leading by example
Individuals are responsible for their own attention management, but leaders can help set the tone, Thomas says. “If the leader is modelling it, half the battle is won,” she maintains, adding, “I know very few leaders who have mastered this.”
One thing leaders should not do is send out emails to their people at all hours. The leader may presume that everyone knows an immediate answer isn’t needed, but her people don’t see it that way. Thomas warns that this can create a 24×7 work culture, and make people reluctant to get into their attention management bubble out of fear they’ll miss something urgent.
How’s your attention span? Are you up to the challenge of managing your attention for a portion of each hour? Give it a try and then leave a comment below to let us know if you feel more productive and less stressed.