One of the greatest casualties of the information age has been our attention span. A study conducted by Microsoft in May 2015 found that the average concentration span of an adult human had dropped from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to just eight seconds 15 years later. To put this into context, humans now boast an attention span one second shorter than that of a goldfish (whose attention spans are nine seconds long).
The ability to concentrate on the essential is under relentless assault from the constant barrage of email and phone calls, and social media has conditioned us to constantly switch tasks and split our attention. While psychologists are often quick to point out the danger this poses to mental health, distractedness is also dangerous to physical health.
According to Pew Research, in the last year alone 8,000 pedestrians in the US were seriously injured or even killed because they had wandered into traffic while glued to their phones. In the German city of Augsburg, distracted pedestrians have become such an issue that local authorities have even installed stop lights in the pavement at busy intersections for the benefit for pedestrians looking down glued to their phones.
Distraction is having an increasing impact on the modern workplace too. Recent studies have found that office workers are interrupted every three minutes. Once attention is broken, it can take some 23 minutes to return focus to the original task. Whether it’s the co-worker stopping by your desk with a quick question, the endless meetings and memos, the conversation between colleagues within earshot you simply can’t help but tune into, the modern open-plan office is custom-built to destroy focus.
In order to counteract this constant assault of distractions and interruptions, here are five tips for achieving focus especially when working on detailed or creative tasks.
- Turn off new message notifications for email, text messages, LinkedIn and Facebook. If you implement this one strategy alone, it will change your work life.
- Close your office door (if you have one) and make it clear you are not to be disturbed unless it’s a genuine emergency
- Switch your mobile phone off; resist your FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and remember that the world will not stop spinning if you are not contactable for a period of time.
- Set aside time in your schedule for intentional thinking. Intel’s 14 000-member software and services group recently piloted a program allowing employees to block out several hours a week for ‘heads down’ work. During these blocks of time, employees aren’t expected to respond to emails or attend meetings — and the results have been amazing. Within the first few months of the program, one employee developed a patent-worthy innovation during ‘heads down’ hours.
- Take control of your email. If you find yourself constantly hostage to your inbox, perhaps an email management tool such as SaneBox is for you. The beauty of SaneBox or similar programs such as Alto, Inky or Mailstrom is they put you back in charge of the frequency and flow of email communication. Alternatively, put some clear boundaries around your access to email throughout the day. Many of the most productive people I know have developed a habit of opening their email software for only 20 minutes, four times per day. Between these times, they switch on their ‘out of office’ notification advising when they’ll be checking their email next so people know when to expect a response.
In order to build momentum and get into a flow state, being able to concentrate and focus deeply on important tasks is critical. In the words of celebrated American author Og Mandino: “It is those who concentrate on but one thing at a time who advance in this world”.