“Concentrate all your efforts up the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn through until brought into focus.” – Alexander Graham Bell
We are inundated by tasks throughout the day. These tasks are big and small, important and non-important, urgent and non-urgent. Some are our own priorities; many are the priorities of others. We can easily become overwhelmed by these tasks and risk becoming ineffective or stressed, and making mistakes. Many of these tasks contribute very little towards our achievement of big goals.
We naturally default to a system of managing multiple tasks, based on our past experience, and we often do not stop to reflect whether or not our multi-tasking is effective. We tend to believe that multi-tasking is a good thing because we often confuse being busy with being effective. Multi-tasking gives the impression of momentum and activity, which can feed our need for accomplishment.
The digital distraction environment has made this phenomenon more pronounced. Between email, phone calls and other forms of communications, it becomes almost impossible to focus on a single task for more than a few minutes during a normal workday without closing the door, turning off the phone and disconnecting the computer.
I am here to break the news to you that you are likely much less effective multi-tasker than you think. A number of recent neuroscience studies show a direct and significant correlation between increased distractions, largely from technology, and decreased concentration and academic performance. One study found that it can take an average of 15 minutes to return to a high level of concentration after a single distraction, such as a phone call. Another study found that students who check Facebook even once in a 15 minute period (on average) have poorer academic performance than their counterparts who don’t check it as frequently.
Developing the habit of focusing on critical tasks is crucial to long-term success in business or any other profession. The ability to concentrate on one task over a prolonged period of time will give you a significant advantage over your competitors and greatly assist you in the achievement of your goals.
How to stay focused:
Significantly limit technological distractions in your life. Avoid excess social media, email, internet surfing and television. Consider checking email only once or twice a day, and turning off your smart phone during important periods of concentration. I take a digital detox most Sundays, and call it “Cell Free Sunday”.
Make it a habit to avoid time-consuming people and activities. Don’t allow other people to interrupt you if you need to seriously concentrate. This can be done by putting a Do Not Disturb sign on your door, which most people will respect. Protect your schedule as if your life depended on it. Don’t allow other circumstances to interrupt.
Acknowledge that you are likely not a good multi-tasker. Take the time to understand your own particular ability to multi-task. Do this by asking someone you know and trust for their insight. Alternatively, think about the times in your life when you have been very efficient and replicate those circumstances when required.
Try to develop Flow in your work by focusing on one task until it is complete, or for the allotted time. The state of flow will dramatically increase your productivity while helping you develop good long-term habit.
Eamonn has a B. Eng. (Electrical) from Lakehead University, MBA (Finance) from University of Toronto, and has completed Executive Education at Stanford University Graduate School of Business. He lives in Vancouver, Canada. Follow him on twitter @EamonnPercy