Mind your focus
We now truly live in an era of information overload, and working life is moving faster than ever. How does this affect our attention?
In this article we look into what organisations can do to improve the performance and health of their employees by applying what we know today about attention, distractions, and recovery.
Our brain consumes a lot of energy. It only makes up a relatively small percentage of our total body weight, but it consumes a significant amount of our energy intake.
Mental batteries drain quickly
The ability to focus on a task that requires effort is known as directed attention, and when we devote ourselves to this, our mental energy drains quickly. In this sense, we must pay for that attention and the name of the currency is energy. Due to this fact, it is impossible for us to stay focused for many consecutive hours because our mental batteries drain quickly.
Our ability to focus works like a muscle. As we use the muscle, it gets tired, and then we find it much more difficult to inhibit impulses and resist distractions. This is known as attention fatigue. Typical reactions when this happens is that our mind starts to wander, and that we find it increasingly difficult to direct and maintain our focus. Research suggests that our ability to focus gets impaired a lot quicker than most of us think, and that this starts already within the hour.
At work, we tend to act as if we had the capacity to stay focused for one long work session throughout the day. We might skip breaks and natural pauses. Usually, our perceived experience is that we are being productive and efficient, which is part of the reason why we act in this way.
Objectively, as we tire, our brain starts shutting down mental abilities, such as complex problem solving, decision-making, focus and other executive functions. It’s a natural reaction aiming to save energy. These are abilities often crucial to perform at work. Some of the consequences that follow are that the quality of our decisions progressively declines, accidents occur more frequently, and we get less efficient.
What we also tend to do, especially when workload is high, is that we start multitasking. Today, the myth about us being able to multitask when addressing complex tasks is debunked. What we do, when we think we are working with several tasks simultaneously, is that we shift our attention between tasks at a high pace.
As we know already, directed attention costs a lot of energy, but attention shifting is even more energy draining. When we try to multitask, research has shown that we make more mistakes, work more slowly, make worse decisions and our capacity to solve complex problems decreases.
Working in a world full of distractions
One way information has an impact on us is in the shape of distractions. Today, distractions are more present than ever. So, why are distractions at work a problem?
Well, apart from drawing our attention from the actual work task at hand and pushing us to drop out of the current work sequence, there’s an increased risk of quite detrimental effects occurring: when frequently distracted, we make more mistakes, workplace accidents increase, the quality of work decreases, and we have a harder time reaching a state of deep focus.
On top of this, it can take up to 15 minutes after being distracted to get back to the same level of focus, and this is something often addressed as ‘adjustment’ time.
What are the common, re-occurring distractions during your workdays?
Typical distractions at the office are texts, emails, phone calls, colleagues and ambient noise. These are all external distractions poking at our attention. Social interruption seems to have the highest impact on our ability to return to our original task.
We also face plenty of internal distractions. In fact, research has shown that a significant amount of all distractions come from within, in forms of thoughts, emotions, impulses and physiological reactions. Monotonous work activates more inner distractions since the brain is not fully occupied with the task at hand. In that case, the brain prefers to save energy and moves into a natural state of mind wandering.
Another important aspect is to optimise your capacity to inhibit impulses and stay focused. When we are tired and energy drained, these are abilities that get weakened. Therefore, frequent breaks and opportunities for recovery are highly beneficial as a way to reduce the impact of internal distractions.
Providing our brain with the right preconditions to excel
So how can organisations apply this knowledge to really provide the right pre-conditions to excel?
There are plenty of aspects that can be considered to align ways of work with what we know about our attention and distractions. A few general aspects are highlighted below:
- Are there ways to minimise monotonous work for tasks that requires deep focus and where quality errors need to be kept at a minimum?
- How do we secure parts of the day to be devoted to work tasks that require deep focus, and what can we do to minimise distractions during this time?
- How do we provide the right preconditions for our employees to recharge their mental batteries and prevent attention fatigue?
- When do we make our most important decisions and what can be done to promote as good preconditions and contexts as possible for making high-quality decisions?
There are also other more concrete ways to address these issues.
Minimise or decrease distractions at work
A lot can be done to minimise or decrease external distractions at work. One practical way is to make a distraction assessment within a team or unit over a few days. Log the different types of distractions you notice throughout your workday and try to find the re-occurring sources. Analyse which distractions are within your control and experiment with steps you can take to decrease the frequency of them. It is impossible to get rid of all distractions, but there are usually plenty of actions that can be taken to make them less frequent.
When it comes to the internal distractions, we must deal with them in a different way compared to external distractions. One way to do this is through awareness training. Through awareness training you increase your ability to direct your focus and make you more resilient to distractions. One well-known method for this is mindfulness.
Regular breaks through out the workday
In addition, one highly effective way to recharge our mental batteries and improve our focus is to have frequent micro-breaks. There is a quite solid body of research showing that when less time is spent on the task at hand due to the time allocated for breaks, the accumulated performance does not decrease. It is quite the opposite, in fact. Micro-breaks have been shown to prevent the onset or progression of physical symptoms and discomfort.
Furthermore, they have proven to be beneficial for employees’ wellbeing and job performance. One way to set it up is to engage in a five- to ten-minute break regularly throughout the workday.
Another set-up that has proven to be helpful is to work in sprints of 25 minutes, and then have a five-minute break, which is also known as the Pomodoro method. And if you do not have a strategy for how to promote micro-breaks within your organisation, one suggestion is to take it to the next level by looking into how you could deliver the right preconditions to promote it to all employees.
Currently, there is huge development potential regarding these issues, as well as plenty of low-hanging fruit for organisations in terms of promoting both performance and employee wellbeing.
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