“There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.”
— 
Lord Chesterfield, 1694-1773

flanker

Quick! Which direction is the centre arrow above pointing?

The above task is called an Eriksen Flanker test, used to determine how susceptible individuals are to distractions and to show how much cognitive control they have. Such tests tell us that we need to exert some kind of effort towards purposefully, and conscientiously directing our attention to the task at hand in the face of distractions and conflicting information.

How many times has a new email notification disrupted your flow, causing you to spend a little bit more time getting back to meeting that urgent deadline? How about that time you forgot your car keys because you were trying to pack in your lunch and grab your house keys, while simultaneously arranging a time to pick your kids up from sports practice?

Our busy, frantic lives don’t afford us many opportunities to pause and take stock of how splintered our attention has become. Consequently, we end the day feeling frazzled, stressed, and most likely forgetting a few things along the way. The sensory assault that accompanies our personal and professional lives never ends in a restless world, one in which we assume multiple roles that are necessary to deal with the multiple demands we encounter.

Living in an environment that overloads our senses presents challenges not just because of the sheer amount of information we need to filter, categorise and make sense of. We are also forced to decide which bits of information we need to attend to. Often, however, when we pay superficial attention to the world around us, we act mindlessly towards what is presented to us.

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
Through The Looking Glass

Ironically, we pride ourselves in our ability multitask — dividing and spreading our attention thinly across varied and mostly unrelated tasks. But contrary to conventional wisdom and its intuitive appeal, multi-tasking is detrimental to overall performance — it decreases the accuracy in tasks [1], lowering recall of material presented in lectures [2] and decreasing task focus overall [3].

It’s not surprisingly that much psychological research on multi-tasking in the workplace highlights how technology disrupts, rather than enhances focus and attention at work. Psychologist Dr. Edward Hallowell goes one step further, calling multitasking a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously [4].”

Maximising focus through mindfulness

To effectively direct our attention in today’s environment, we need the ability to focus. In his book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, Daniel Goleman argues that we need to be skilled in diverting our attention toward the present task at hand. Note the singular in ‘task’ — just one task at a time, devoting all your attention to that, completing it as best you can, and then moving on to the next. Goleman links the ability to focus with self-awareness — the recognition and understanding of how one’s attention, inner voice and sensory impressions are influencing thoughts, emotions and actions [5]. It’s not an easy thing to do, given that we are consistently confronted with situations, circumstances and individuals that repeatedly demand a slice of our attention.

Goleman, however, suggests that we can develop this form of self-awareness, and sharpen our ability to focus through mindfulness by being more deliberately self-aware and attentive about where our focus is directed. Mindfulness involves a deliberate, conscious awareness towards the present moment, where one focuses on one’s immediate circumstances in a non-judgemental manner [6].

Shifting your attention to something new every 10 seconds disrupts focus. You exert additional effort, and expend more mental resources in re-framing, re-evaluating, re-appraising and revising your attention. Done repeatedly, this attention-hopping leads to disrupted focus, increases the likelihood of lapses and mistakes, and increases mental fatigue. It’s focus that drives attention, accuracy and performance on a task — not our tendency to give selective, quick and superficial attention to every single detail that comes our way.

Being mindful to when and where your focus is interrupted pays dividends for our performance. Recent psychological studies also show that it’s the quality, not the quantity of attention paid to tasks that determine quality work outcomes [7] and improved psychological well-being [8].

Being mindful of how flighty and precious our focus is helps us optimise our attention, and navigate the demands of an attention-deficient world in a calmer, more efficient manner. Being mindful, being in the present enhances organisational attention [9] — we pay more attention towards how we are processing information presented to us, allowing us greater mental flexibility and accuracy in coping with demands that are placed upon us.

Try This: 3 ways to enhance your focus

  • Focus on one thing at a time. Effective multi-tasking is a myth. Devote your attention and concentration to doing one task well, completing that task as best you can, and then moving on to the next task.
  • Be mindful of distractions in your environment. Recognise distractions in your environment that draw you away from the task at hand. For instance, do your email notification and mobile phone messages prompt (or perhaps tempt) you away from what it is that you are currently working on?
  • Give yourself time to get into a focused mode. Focusing intently on a task does not happen immediately upon starting a task. Give yourself a bit of time to immerse yourself in the task, and be mindful that initial attempts or approaches may be met with some resistance, or mild levels of anxiety or frustration. The good news is, once you hit a certain point, you may experience a deep state of concentration, attention and focus called ‘flow.’

References

[1] Adler, R. F., & Benbunan-Fich, R. (2012). Juggling on a high wire: Multitasking effects on performance. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 70(2), 156-168.

[2] Hembrooke, H., & Gay, G. (2003). The laptop and the lecture: The effects of multitasking in learning environments. Journal of computing in higher education, 15(1), 46-64.

[3] Mark, G., Voida, S., & Cardello, A. (2012, May). A pace not dictated by electrons: an empirical study of work without email. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 555-564). ACM.

[4] Hallowell, E. M. (2006). CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and about to Snap! Strategies for Coping in a World Gone ADD. New York: Ballantine.

[5] Goleman, D. (2013). Focus: The hidden driver of excellence. New York: Harper Collins.

[6] Kabat‐Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness‐based interventions in context: past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 144-156. doi: 10.1093/clipsy.bpg016.

[7] Jha, A. P., Krompinger, J., & Baime, M. J. (2007). Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 7(2), 109-119.

[8] Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of personality and social psychology, 84(4), 822.

[9] Weick, K. E., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2006). Mindfulness and the quality of organizational attention. Organization Science, 17(4), 514-524.