I’ve become increasingly aware of how many distractions many of us encounter at work. With all the messaging apps, emails, phone calls, and Zoom meetings, there are so many possible interruptions that can prevent us from being productive. This is why one of the most important things I’ve learned over the last several years is how to stay focused. I thought it would be helpful to share three tips that have helped me limit distractions and practice focused work.
But first, a word about multitasking and its relationship to focus. This may come as a surprise to my colleagues, but I’m terrible at multitasking. I can’t even do the dishes and have a conversation with my partner at the same time! The good thing is you don’t need to be a good multitasker to get a lot done.
There is a myriad of research that shows, “Doing more than one task at a time . . . takes a toll on productivity.” When people are good at multitasking, what they’re really good at is quickly transitioning between tasks and time management. However, even changing tasks takes mental energy and can hinder our focus and how effective we are, particularly when it comes to our more cognitively demanding work.
In his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport talks about the importance of uninterrupted focus on cognitively demanding tasks. In an interview on NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast, Newport uses the term “attention residue” to describe thoughts about our current task that intrude when we switch to another. For example, when we shift our focus from a cognitively demanding task onto something else and then return to the original task, our cognitive performance drops. This is exactly what happens when we check our email or phone mid-task.
How can we avoid distractions at work and focus on our more cognitively demanding tasks?
I’ve bounced around a few different chairs at my office, so naturally, I’ve picked up a variety of responsibilities that need varying levels of time and attention. One of my most cognitively demanding tasks is proofreading, which requires a lot of uninterrupted focus. Here are a few tips on how to stay focused, carve out time without distractions, and prevent a buildup of attention residue:
1. Ignore your messages.
Closing your email and other messaging apps and putting your smartphone where you can’t see it are great ways to increase your ability to focus. Many of us already spend too much time responding to emails and using other messaging platforms, so shutting these down for a couple of hours a day takes away the disruptions they can cause. If a close work contact needs to get a hold of you for something urgent, let them know the best way to reach you is by phone.
You don’t need to be a good multitasker to get a lot done.
2. Tune out the noise.
If you’re in a noisy environment and need to tune out your pets, street noise, or kids, put on some headphones and find a great ambient playlist to really focus. For the past week, another business on our street has been on strike, and their signs ask vehicles to honk for support. This is a beloved local restaurant, so there has been constant honking throughout the day. Thanks to my headphones, I can still support them in their efforts and get work done.
3. Transition to similar tasks.
If you’ve successfully set aside a few hours where you can focus but still need to work on multiple things to reach your deadlines, shift between similar tasks to avoid a buildup of attention residue. For example, if I’m working on a lengthy proofreading project and someone sends me a quick marketing email that needs editing, I can simply incorporate that task into my existing work without an abrupt shift in focus.
Although these tips will help you reach a deeper state of focus, they don’t necessarily apply to all types of work. For example, many administrative tasks like answering emails, scheduling meetings, or collecting data do not require a lot of mental energy. The goal is to balance these tasks with your more cognitively demanding ones by setting aside intentional time for each.
If you want to achieve greater focus and better work results, schedule in time when you can practice focused work using these three tips. Ignoring your messages for periods of time, tuning out the noise around you, and switching between similar tasks when necessary will help you prevent a buildup of attention residue. Remember that it’s also okay to take a break when you need to. Happy focusing!
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