Remote Work, Curated Communications

Your focus is broken

Here’s what’s happening and why you need to reduce the noise
Your focus is broken, here's why

Our collective ability to focus seems to have vanished, and it’s a hot topic of conversation. In fact, Fast Company and Inc Magazine recently published articles on this exact topic. Though it’s certainly not a new issue (Harvard Business Review was writing about it back in 2016), it’s a persistent one.

Each day, more and more people find themselves struggling to stay engaged with a singular task – and many of us constantly seek multiple sensory inputs.

Let’s set the scene. You have an hour of quiet time before bed. Maybe the kids just went to bed, or maybe you just wrapped up a late work deadline. In any case, you’re ready to unwind after a long, busy day full of people needing you for various things. Maybe you grab a glass of wine or a mug of tea, and you settle into your favorite spot on the couch.

Once you’re situated, you flip on the TV, and as you listen to a show, you pick up your phone and begin scrolling endlessly. Maybe news sites are your jam, or perhaps you’re more of a social media and chill type. Regardless, you find yourself splitting your attention between tasks, even while you relax.

If you do try to focus on a solitary thing, be it reading a book or meditation, chances are you’re easily distracted, and you find your mind wandering more than you’d prefer. 

If any of this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. 

It’s not your fault, says science

This topic is so important to Johann Hari, he wrote a book about it called “Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How to Think Deeply Again”. In his book, which was featured in the recent Fast Company article mentioned above, he explains that many people default to “a lack of willpower and invention of the smartphone” as their primary excuse for being so distractible. He believes this excuse is far too simplistic, and that there are larger scientific forces at play that cause our goldfish-like attention span.

Hari explains how sleep deprivation, a poor diet, and a serious addiction to technology are the main culprits stealing our ability to focus.

  • Sleep scarcity shatters clarity
    Most Americans get less than seven hours of sleep a night, and only 15% of us wake up refreshed. Yikes. This is a symptom of families and individuals having too much on their plate – too much work, too much stress, too many obligations. There literally aren’t enough hours in a day to accomplish everything we need to do, so we lose sleep to get it done. But sacrificing those much-needed zzz’s results in your brain not repairing properly, meaning you’re less ready to tackle whatever comes your way the next morning. Add that “glowing lights make you wake up” (read: get off your phone before bed) issue, and it’s no wonder our sleep habits are slipping.

 

  • Poor diet amplifies attention issues
    We’re forced to prioritize so many things in our lives, and sticking to a diet that meets all our nutritional needs by spending time making fresh meals full of unprocessed foods doesn’t always make it to the top of the list. Lots of us just pop a multivitamin before bed and hope that does the trick. But neglecting this part of our health can lead to blood pressure spikes and drops, brain fog, and overall lower mental ability.

 

  • Technology is our friend… except for when it’s not
    Smartphones just make it too easy. They’re always there, within arms reach. If you’re bored for even a quarter of a second, you have instant entertainment on standby. You can try to outsmart today’s wordle, crush some candy, or seek out the week’s funniest memes. Feeling productive? Put in a curbside grocery order!

    Your phone is your digital best friend, and chances are you spend more time with your device than you do with any person in your life. It’s likely the last thing you look at before you go to sleep and the first thing you reach for in the morning. And there’s a reason you feel a massive void if you ever accidentally leave your phone in the car and you’re stuck waiting for any period of time.

 

Hari is spot on when it comes to these three factors having a major impact on our warbling ability to concentrate. But is there more to it than that? We think so.

So what’s the real cost of a mid-workday distraction? According to Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, it’s 23 minutes and 15 seconds.
Our daily routine impacts our (in)ability to focus

The general way we operate in our day-to-day lives, both at home and in the office, dramatically impacts our ability to focus. Another major factor that certainly took a toll was being forced to transform our homes into a hybrid school-office-gym and place to relax as we scrambled to support ourselves and our families through a pandemic. But even beyond that unprecedented situation, several other issues that come into play:

  • Wrestling with the expectation to always be “on”
    People have a tendency to feel like we need to be available at a moment’s notice – to our families, our kid’s schools, our workplace, and our friends. Each category of people treats us as such and tends to get a little frustrated if we don’t happen to be available. We’ve clearly all long-since forgotten about the days that phones stayed home and when people were not at home, they were just unreachable until they got back. Unfortunately for us, the anxiety that comes along with our collective but mostly self-imposed expectations to be “on-call” negatively impacts our ability to chill. Which leads to…

 

  • Stress at work and at home hurts our ability to unplug and recharge
    These past three years have added a layer none of us could have anticipated that resulted in new record-high stress levels, in large part due to increased family obligations, health concerns, and a lack of control. That perfect storm is also enhanced by an aggressive political climate and significant social unrest, locally and globally. It’s hard to relax when so many huge factors impact our day-to-day lives so significantly and for such a long period of time. At one point or another, we’ve all been stressed and concerned – be it about our health, safety, family, or the inability to connect with others. Studies consistently prove that stress-causing hormones have all sorts of negative impacts on our bodies. Namely, they affect our mood, happiness, and – you guessed it – our ability to focus.

 

  • Constant digital noise and distractions make it hard to complete a task
    A quick pivot to remote work at companies not adequately prepared to handle such a big change caused serious disruption for some workers. Many employees suddenly found themselves in endless back-to-back virtual meetings with no time to work. 

 

So what’s the real cost of a mid-workday distraction? According to Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, it’s 23 minutes and 15 seconds. That’s how much time it takes to successfully return to the original task after being interrupted. Now, think about how many interruptions you face in an average workday, and you’ll find yourself marveling that you ever get anything meaningful done!

What’s worse is technology is literally designed to break your focus. Apps fight for your attention with their “me first” notification bubbles and pop-ups. Hari adds some nice color to this point when he says, “One of the earliest investors in Facebook, told a public audience that the creators of the site had asked themselves, ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’ The techniques they used were ‘exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. . . . [We] understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.”

So, there’s that.

You’re always multitasking

Think about it. How often do you focus – and I mean reaaaaaaally focus, on one thing at a time? Like, with zero interruptions? Practically never, right? The problem is, every time you multitask, you’re breaking your ability to concentrate a little bit more. Stanford researchers dug a little deeper into this and found that people who multitask a lot and are proud of it are actually worse at multitasking than people who like to do a single thing at a time. Why? They struggle to organize their thoughts and filter out irrelevant information, and are actually slower at switching between tasks in general. Scientifically, that makes sense because your brain can only focus on one thing at a time. When you try to add more than that, your brain says “nah”.

University of London researchers determined that multitasking lowers your IQ to levels you’d experience if you stayed up all night. Most startlingly, researchers at the University of Sussex in the UK were able to draw a direct correlation between the number of hours people spend on multiple devices and brain density. More time spent multitasking on multiple devices equals less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of your brain responsible for cognitive-emotional control and empathy. 

You read that right. Too much multitasking can actually cause brain damage. Clearly, this is a serious issue.

Resetting Your Focus Equilibrium 

We need to refocus our minds and retrain our brains to tackle one thing at a time, but how? Hari says, “It requires a real shift in consciousness.” Individually, that means turning a lens on ourselves and doing an honest evaluation of what’s contributing to your lack of focus.

Here are a few common themes we found in our inner circle:

  • Pay attention to your environment
    Is your workspace too loud? Are there too many visual distractions? Whether you work remotely from a corner of your house where you post up with your laptop, or you work in an office and have some ability to personalize your space, you can make a positive change. Think about what that environment is like for you right now and what you’d like to change about it to make it feel more comfortable and inspiring. Perhaps it’s getting a mousepad printed with a picture of your family so you can remember who you’re working for and where your priorities lie. Perhaps it’s investing in good noise-canceling headphones so you can tune out the literal noise when it’s time to focus. Whatever the case, small changes that make your space feel more pleasant can make a big difference in boosting your ability to focus.

  • Don’t be busy for busy’s sake
    Productivity and busyness are not one and the same. There are things you have to do, and those are non-negotiables. Then there are things you can do… or, they can wait a day. You don’t have to plan every waking moment of your life down to the minute, but building a consistent routine, adding your appointments and meetings to a shared family calendar, and prioritizing mission-critical tasks that create a lot of value will help you reign in your feeling of overwhelm. This holds true both in your personal and work life. Creating a shared space that reflects all your commitments can also help you strike some semblance of balance between those two worlds.

  • Preserve buffers
    We saw this tip in the Harvard Business Review article on focus and couldn’t agree more. People often lack “margins”, or time between tasks which give them space to successfully pivot from one thing to another. The bad news is, we’re already pretty terrible and shifting gears between one are of focus and another, and our ability to do this successfully dwindles as hours of the day tick by.

    This issue can be particularly debilitating for executive-level employees, who need to be present, organized, and clear with many stakeholders for many hours each day. Multiple articles suggest as much as 70% of a CEO’s time is used suboptimally. Building buffers into your day – even just ten minutes between meetings – can help you stay clear-headed and on task, giving your brain the time it needs to switch from one topic to the next.

  • Reduce physical and digital clutter
    Overstimulation in any form kills your ability to focus. When it comes to clutter, this can come in many forms. Clutter is a distraction – a word that literally means “a thing that prevents someone from giving full attention to something else.” When your physical, mental, or workspace is cluttered, you start to think about other things you need to do.

    Let’s say you’re working on a laptop, and you click over to the desktop to see a thousand unorganized files. Then you click into your email and see 4,542 unread messages. Then you pick up your phone and see three missed calls and a voicemail notification. Then the Slack ding goes off, and you suddenly have six unanswered messages from four different people to respond to. You add icing to the cake by making the mistake of glancing up over the top of your computer only to realize your office is a flipping mess.

    The thing is, we all sort of train ourselves to ignore these things to a certain degree. However, it all adds up in our mental to-do list and builds this sort of fever pitch that starts to feel normal. This just isn’t a good way to operate. So how do you fix it?

 

First, make an effort to reduce digital noise. Here are some ideas on how to do that:

  • Turn off notifications for anything that isn’t critical on your laptop, phone, smartwatch, and any other tech gadget you keep on you at all times. 
  • Look at the tools you use at work (marketing platform, project management tool) and adjust any notification frequency settings you have access to. 
  • Set up your phone’s “focus” mode and enter your work hours, so it auto-toggles on and off each day. 
  • Adjust the settings in your company chat tool. Mute channels that are frequently busy and full of information that can wait until break time.

 

If you’re a leader responsible for the well-being of your team, consider investing in a platform like Cleary, which is designed to eliminate information overload and create a serene workspace for your team. By building a home that showcases your most important updates, you’re able to focus your employee’s attention on mission-critical messages while also giving them the power to opt-in or out of other workspaces.

  • Commit to improving one bad habit per month
    Time to fess up. What’s your kryptonite? Are you the person who always has 30 browser tabs open? Do you immediately turn the TV on when you open your eyes in the morning? Are you the king or queen of starting tasks you never finish? Whatever your flaw, pick one thing and focus on it for a whole month. Don’t worry about any other habits. Keep your focus, well-focused. You’ll be surprised how quickly you can make progress.

  • Be selective about how you spend your time (and consume your information)
    Try to make it a habit to have more awareness of the type and amount of information you consume each day. Many people started obsessively consuming more and more news during the pandemic, and it’s been a tough habit to break. However, too much information causes a self-imposed sensory overload. 

 

As with any bad habit, admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery. We hope this post illuminates some things you’re doing each day that lead to fractured focus and that you now have a good idea of some small changes you can make to start to rebuild your attention.

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