Sunday 25 February 2018

Well-being: Out of focus

When was the last time that you worked without distraction?

The state of undivided focus is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve
The state of undivided focus is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve

I often wonder how much more I'd get done in a day if I did away with the extraneous, inconsequential stuff.

If I stopped opening every mail-merged email promising '70% off at ASOS', every WhatsApp group message and every Quora notification...

If I didn't have to filter every passing thought through Google, research every new artist I discover on Spotify and take a tea break every 15 minutes...

The endless distractions at our fingertips have made the state of undivided focus increasingly difficult to achieve.

We hear a lot about FOMO - fear of missing out - these days. It's the anxiety that arises when we believe that other people are having a better time than we are.

Yet FOMO doesn't just concern how others are spending their time; it concerns how we spend our own time too.

Think back to the last time you tried to work without distraction. You likely had the fear that you were missing out on an important unopened email in your inbox; a hot topic conversation on Twitter or a news story that everyone was talking about - except you.

It's easy to pin this collective lack of focus on the emergence of the digital world. However, it could be argued that the age of distraction predates social media and smartphones (although having 16 browser tabs open at once certainly doesn't help).

'Multi-tasking' became an industry buzzword and CV cliché in the late nineties. Suddenly you had to be able to type up a last-minute report while calling a client in Tokyo to be considered capable in the workplace.

Scientists have since discovered that multi-tasking - which is in fact just 'task-switching' - costs up to 40pc of our overall productivity in the long-run. More recently Sophie Leroy, a business school professor at the University of Minnesota, coined the term 'attention residue' to describe this constant state of semi-distraction.

Study after study tells us that a scattered mind kills creativity and reduces productivity, yet most of us are still operating within the multi-task, multi-screen mindset, thinking about the other thing we should be doing rather than focusing on what it is we are doing right now.

The cost to our mental health is patently evident. Indeed, leading positive psychologists say 'flow state' - which occurs when we get completely lost in a task - is crucial to our emotional wellbeing. But how can we enter flow state when we're constantly distracted by the ping of incoming messages, or "every dog that barks", as Winston Churchill put it?

Leo Babauta, author and creator of Zen Habits, adds that while "we may feel productive when we're constantly switching between things, constantly doing something, in all honesty, we're not. We're just distracted."

The latest, and very welcome, buzzword in business circles is 'deep work'. Deep work occurs when we stop skimming the surface and dive into the task in hand.

As Cal Newport writes in Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. "To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction."

Single-tasking requires a mindful approach. It might feel like you're slowing down but you have to trust that you are finally gaining ground.

Placing a time limit on tasks will help in this regard. Parkinson's Law states that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion", so be clear about how much time you have available before you begin any task - even if it's tidying the kitchen.

Distractions should also be avoided. Try designating two/three periods during the day for checking emails, instead of reacting to every single alert, and turn off your Smartphone if needs be.

To-do lists are terribly obvious but terribly important. Try penning one before you go to bed at night. On Fridays, write out your to-do list when you've finished your work for the day - it assuages Monday morning anxiety.

Regular breaks are also crucial. The other great fallacy of the modern working world is that we get more done when we work through our lunch break. Contrarily, taking regular breaks increases our productivity.

Remember too that a lack of focus can prevent us from realising our talents and achieving our greatest goals. In a world of multi-hyphenates and 30-day challenges, we've forgotten that enduring success requires laser-focus.

Tony Robbins put it best when he said: "One reason so few of us achieve what we truly want is that we never direct our focus; we never concentrate our power. Most people dabble their way through life, never deciding to master anything in particular."

Eventually we have to concede that the scattergun approach simply doesn't work. It's the illusion of industriousness - ostensibly you're doing everything but in reality you're not getting anywhere.

"The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy " adds Newport. "As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive".

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