Back in 2015, Microsoft Canada published a report infamously concluding that humans have a shorter attention span than goldfish. According to the study, the average human attention span in 2000 was 12 seconds compared to an average of 8 seconds in 2013 (the average attention span of goldfish is 9 seconds). While Microsoft concedes that digital lifestyles have had a negative impact on sustained focus, it argues that the “good” news is that “tech adoption and social media usage are training consumers to become better at processing and encoding information through short bursts of high attention.” In other words, this may not be a plus for us (the consumers) but it’s certainly something to be leveraged by marketers who vie for our attention. Marketers need only to create short and immediate impact in order for consumers to take notice. The study also concludes that selective attention (i.e. the ability to focus on one thing/task in the face of distracting stimuli) significantly decreases for multi-screen users. Those who are able to filter out distractions are more likely to actively choose to have fewer distractions and multiple screens. Our ability to be selective with our attention is not due to demographics, media consumption, or social media use, but rather it’s the intentional environment that we make for ourselves for when we focus on a task/activity.
1. Our attention spans are shortening;
2. What is good for marketers is not necessarily good for us as knowledge workers;
3. Our surroundings, which is largely within our control, influence our ability to concentrate on the task at hand.
With that in mind, there are 10 highly-specific strategies that I incorporate into my work life that have helped me produce high-quality work amidst both digital (i.e. social media) and analog (i.e. meetings) distractions. Based on my experience, here are some tips I’ve found useful in improving your overall productivity and focus.
1. Focus on one task at a time.
Unless my task specifically involves legal research, I only have one or two browser windows open at the same time. If my task only involves using Microsoft Word, then I make it a point to exit out of my browser, rather than have it minimized in the background. I also do this with email. When I’m not expecting a response from someone, I will intentionally close Microsoft Outlook and reopen it after I’ve either completed the task or taking a short break. So far, I’ve not missed out on anything urgent and I’ve had an easier time diving into cognitively demanding work.
2. Make a daily or weekly work plan.
Stealing a strategy from Cal Newport, I time-block my entire day until I leave the office. Although it would probably be wiser to do this the night before, I tend to do this either in the morning at home or as soon as I come into work. Although unexpected tasks pop-up (i.e. a client unexpectedly drops by the office), I simply just go back to my plan and revise it accordingly. It’s less about how much gets done and instead establishing a vision as to how your work day will unfold. No longer do I think to myself, in the middle of a task, “Shoot, I have to also do this before the day is over,” because I’ve already scheduled a specific time to address that.
3. Meditate on my tasks.
My best ideas are never my first ideas. During my preparation for my last hearing, I wrote out three major headings and the arguments that would fall under each one. Over the two weeks following my initial sketch of arguments, almost all of it was changed and looked nothing like what I started out with. The final result was a product of meditating on my problem while I was sitting on the subway, taking my dog for a long walk, and even while I was reading on unrelated topics. I’m not suggesting that you must think of work all the time, but I am proposing that you should give yourself enough time to revisit whatever issue you need to solve because you may be able to see it from a different angle.
4. Set several deadlines.
This is related to the above point. In order to manage stress that will inevitably come with whatever task you’re working on, set specific deadlines for each step of your project. This will create a system for your project, which will deal with some of the common uncertainties that are associated with doing something hard or outside of your comfort zone.
5. Complete intense work in frequent bursts.
While Microsoft proclaims that an advantage of consumers leading digital lifestyles is the ability to develop deep focus in short bursts, Microsoft is talking in seconds rather than minutes or over a period of an entire day. Instead, set up a system where you focus on a specific project intensely for 25 minutes at a time, followed by a 5 minute break. Repeat this process 3–4 times and then take an extended break for about 10–15 minutes. However, while you are on a break do not suddenly shift to multi-tasking (i.e. switching between social media accounts). If you are going to check your email, just check your email. If you are going to logon to a social media platform, just look at one. Personally, I prefer to go for a quick walk around the block or run out to grab a coffee because I’d like to give my eyes a break from staring at a screen. This process is called the Pomodoro Method, and you can either use your phone or a free app to count down the time for you.
6. Use it or lose it.
The principle of brain plasticity is simple: If you don’t actively workout your brain, your brain will begin to deteriorate. You need to feed your brain proper stimuli in order to counter degeneration, and no social media doesn’t count. An active cognitive lifestyle requires, according to Dr. Mezernich, continually feeding your brain activities that are intensive, repetitive, and progressively challenging. Some example activities are: doing a jigsaw puzzle, learning a new instrument, participating in sports activities that require hand-eye coordination responses, and various brain exercises.
7. Improve your creativity.
The adage that the left side of your brain is logical and the right side of your brain is creative is an overly simplistic understanding of how the brain functions. Creativity, rather, can be determined by how effectively the brain can communicate across various internal networks that often work independently of one another. According to a 2017 study, a brain network associated with creative abilities comprises of three regions: the default network (brainstorming and daydreaming), the salience network (detecting environmental stimuli and switching between default and executive brain networks), and the executive network (which activates when we need to focus). After four independent datasets, the researchers concluded that highly creative people are defined by their ability to simultaneously engage in these large-scale networks.
Here’s how it works:
- The default network fosters a host of ideas via flexible and impulsive mechanisms involved in memory retrieval and mental stimulation.
- The salience network operates to identify possible ideas — potentially useful information generated from the general network.
- Finally, this information is forwarded to the executive system for high-processing, which evaluates, elaborates, and/or revises the idea.
Although this seems like a serial progression, the reality is that the executive system can also interact with the general network by enacting constraints and prioritizing specific objectives. How are we to improve our creative cognition? I believe implementing activities into your daily life such as reading fiction, writing in different tones and styles, and even participating in arts and crafts can foster this ability.
8. Write down what you need to master.
Prior to my first hearing as a legal professional, I distinctly remember writing out exactly what I was going to say and then rereading my script various times with a highlighter. When it came time to present my submissions at the hearing, I essentially read out loud my written notes. While I was certainly thorough, I ended up repeating myself, making things longer than it needed to be, and most likely bored the adjudicators. What I gathered from this experience (and unfortunately a few others) is that rereading your notes is useless. The test for whether you understand a subject or not is the capacity you have to explain your subject or argument. Now, after two years of practicing, I write, in point form, the arguments that need to be addressed, followed by the page numbers of where any relevant documents can be found in the case materials. In my last hearing, all my notes were handwritten and for the last half of my submissions, I didn’t even bother to look down (unless I had to cite a specific page number).
9. Develop a stress management system.
Stress is unavoidable, but we can create systems to decrease its influence over our capacity to work. I cannot speak to what may help you, but common activities that are used to relieve stress are meditation, aerobic exercise (running, cycling, walking), surrounding yourself in nature, and eating healthfully. When you know that you have an upcoming project that is sure to generate stress, anticipate scheduling periods into your work plan (see strategy #2) to participate in whatever stress management activities that work for you.
10. Practice slow work.
We all have fires that we need to extinguish, but when we react to every little thing that comes up at work, our focus and attention significantly suffer. To counter this, I advocate for a model of slow work: scheduling extra time to complete a task, engaging in single-tasking, and setting reasonable expectations for yourself and for others on how much you are able to produce in a given day. As a lawyer, I find that my clients are more than happy to wait a few extra days for something, so long as I (a) communicate this clearly to them in the beginning and set expectations, (b) complete the task well. For my clients, it’s about producing high-quality results, not mediocre work.
The ability to sustain focus on your work is arguably one of the most important factors for a successful work product. Although there have been lots of research on this problem of waning attention spans, there hasn’t been nearly enough discussion about potential solutions. Work will never be easy, but it’s certainly within our power to foster an environment that helps our brains function at their optimal capacity.
Jennifer Chan is a lawyer and blogger. You can find her at jennifertchan.net where she focuses on connecting the dots between work, money, and happiness. She resides in Toronto, Canada with her girlfriend, full-figured rabbit, and a deaf & blind cockapoo.
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