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Fight distraction and find focus

Every month, Oliver Burkeman invites you to improve your work life – this month, are you driven to distraction at work?

by Psychologies

multi-tasking at work

The project

It’s a cliché that modern life is full of distractions. But the problem’s especially acute in the workplace, because interruptions are part of the job: we’re distracted from work by other work, not just by Facebook or daydreams. You’re deep in concentration – but then the phone rings, and it’s also your job to answer it. We’re condemned to an exhausting state the technology expert Linda Stone calls ‘continuous partial attention’. It’s time to fight back.

The aim

Though we rarely think of it this way, attention’s a limited resource, like money: spend it on one thing, and you can’t spend that same bit on something else. Worse, it takes an average of 25 minutes for an interrupted worker to return to what they were focusing on, research suggests. So we need to manage attention like we manage our cash, instead of giving it to whoever or whatever demands it.

The theory

You’d probably never rush out to spend money on a new bag just because an advert told you to. Yet we do something like this whenever we ‘spend’ attention on an email just because the sender thought we should. (In some jobs, like customer service for example, answering emails quickly is compulsory – but managing your attention is still vital, to get back on track afterwards.) The best plan, whenever possible, is not to let ‘attention vultures’ in.

Time management expert Julie Morgenstern suggests not checking email for an hour or more when you get in to work; instead, start with an important project, and you’ll find it shifts the whole day’s momentum in favour of focus. Or use ‘timeboxing’: set a timer for 20-40 minutes, and resolve not to change focus until it buzzes. Try batching too – group similar tasks together, so you make all your phone calls (for example) in one go. You’ll radically reduce time spent ‘task-switching’, and stay energised for longer.

Try it out:

1. Tidy your desk: ‘Outer order contributes to inner calm,’ writes Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project (Harper, £6.99). It’s true this can be taken too far: spend too long tidying your desk each day, and it’ll become a source of interruption in itself. But a distraction-free environment can give rise to a more focused mind.

2. Try a ‘sensory sweep’: When you’re feeling scattered, ‘emotional intelligence’ expert Daniel Goleman recommends focusing on each of your senses in turn, for a few seconds each. What can you see? Hear? Smell? Taste? What are you touching? This is a form of meditation that regathers the attention, leaving you poised for action.

3. Use if-then planning: One powerful way to resist distraction is to make a specific plan, in advance, for how you’ll respond when temptation strikes. Use the ‘if-then’ format: ‘If I find myself checking Facebook, then I’ll get up from my desk for a glass of water and go back to work.’

OLIVER BURKEMAN is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (Canongate, £8.99)

Photograph: plainpicture/Image Source

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