Humans are more distracted now than ever before, at least since we’ve started keeping records. Over the last decade, the average attention span has dwindled from 12 seconds in 2000 to just eight seconds in 2014, according to the U.S. Library of Medicine. The kicker: our eight second attention spans are one second shorter than a goldfish’s. No joke.
Who or what’s to blame for such abhorrent focus? “External stimulation,” says the Library of Medicine. That’s code for mobile internet, apps that vie for our attention, push email, social media alerts, work from anywhere, persistent connectivity, and our enthusiastic adoption of “the internet of things.” In other words, the only person we can blame is ourselves.
What’s a working professional to do then? You have three options, according to popular thinking: fall off the grid, stick with default technology settings for substandard productivity, or my personal favorite, set usage boundaries to upgrade concentration, contributions, and welfare levels.
For those interested in options one or two, this article won’t be any help. But for for those interested in the latter, there’s quite a lot you can do to stay focused in a 24/7 world. After extensive online research, here is the most celebrated and pragmatic advice for doing just that:
1. Turn off real-time alerts. Doing this is difficult. It may bruise your ego. But it’s the most proven way to prioritize your attention and reduce distractions. To do this, you’ll need to distinguish high-priority demands on your time from low-priority interruptions (i.e. assignments from your boss versus social obligations versus social media notifications versus goofing off enablers). Then you’ll need to silence, hide, close, and delete all low-priority alerts, instant messages, and tabs from your phone, computer, browser—basically any software or communication that makes a demand on your attention. Willpower alone won’t overcome the onslaught of notifications we face. If we want to get things done, we must prioritize and personalize our settings (rather than accepting default ones) and intercept the non-important alerts at the operating system level before they distract us.
2. Plan and reward yourself with regular breaks. Information or notification overload isn’t the problem. Our inability to filter it is. In other words, goofing off is good… at the appropriate time. After all, it’s human nature. So instead of ignorantly planning to work “eight hours straight,” work in 90-120 chunks like prolific experts do, followed by rejuvenating and rewarding 15-minute breaks to socialize on Facebook, read the news, beat your highscore, or chat with a friend. As with all things in life, timing is everything here.
3. Find something to help you endure monotony. Filling out TPS reports is mindless task. But mindless paperwork will forever be part of the job. Even people who love their jobs have to endure monotony. Most of life is monotony, in fact. The trick is falling in love with repetition; falling in love with the process (if not boredom) of doing the same thing over and over again. For some that’s mastering the process, being the best at it. For others it’s listening to music or audio books. For Snow White, it’s whistling while she worked. Whatever you do, staying focused is all about losing yourself in repetitive tasks. It’s what we call the groove. To stay there, you must rise above the monotony.
4. Be deliberate with your time. Depending on the source, humans are capable of only 6-30 hours of intense focus per week. Our attention is finite and in no way equal to the amount of time we spend awake (16 hours per day on average). So we must be diligent about how and where we spend those limited hours of focus. For most that’s early morning and late evening when distractions are at their fewest. Respect that. Then plan less productive meetings and menial work in the afternoon while allocating the really demanding tasks in the morning.
5. Stow your gadgets when appropriate. Even with alerts turned off, the allure of smartphones and the “demand anything” nature of the Internet are difficult (if not impossible) to fully ignore. They are that powerful. As an extra line of defense against their distractions, get in the habit of keeping your alert-less devices and connections out of reach, say during dinner, when having meaningful facetime, while on deadline, or at your kid’s recital or baseball game. Also consider removing your phone or computer from your bedroom, which can have a measurable effect on your focus during waking hours.
6. Avoid chemical stimulants. Coffee, energy drink, sweets, and nicotine enthusiasts aren’t going to like this, but chemical stimulants undeniably mess with our ability to focus. So kick your dependency on them and reap the rewards. If you must, health experts recommend no more than one dose per morning to get you going, so at least try to wean your dependency. Your mind, body, and concentration will thank you.
7. Embrace asynchronous communication. Turning off real-time alerts will innately facilitate this advice. But hyper focused producers take it a step further and defer all low-priority responses to the appropriate time. For instance, they email or text when appropriate instead of calling or meeting. They wait to respond to email, texts, or tweets until the high priority task at hand is complete. They get in the habit of batch processing non-emergency communication. This too requires honest prioritization. But it’s an undeniable advantage for those who grasp it.
8. Practice metacognition (aka mindfulness). In short, metacognition is understanding which activities stimulate or calm the brain, explains Dr. Larry Rosen. Knowing this can improve the timing of your demands. For instance, checking email or listening to new music before bed is usually not a good idea. A metacognitive person knows this. So it’s important to become one. You can do this by distinguishing things that activate the mind as opposed to relaxing it and plan your obligations accordingly.
9. Train your co-workers to respect your demands. Not replying to messages during nights, weekends, or vacations can set the tone. But sometimes you might need to take it a step further with pre-written text messages to reduce inappropriate engagement. For instance, try one of these: “With my family. Please email and I’ll get back to you later,” or “Done with work for the night. Please email, and I’ll handle in the AM.”
10. Take tech-free afternoons, days, nights, weekends, and vacations. Humans need downtime. Some humans forget this so you may need to politely remind them if not encourage them to participate in “tech-free” periods of leisure, socializing, and even work. These extended breaks recharge your “battery” and actually enable better concentration upon returning to the office.
11. Read more. Studies show that people who read often focus better than those who don’t. So reach for long-form news, essays, and books over TV, games, and short-form literature. This will help your brain to work uninterrupted.
12. Remove yourself from distracting environments. The more comfortable the workspace, the better you’ll be able to focus. So given the choice, don’t remain in distracting work environments. Use noise canceling headphones or door signs if you must. Whatever you do, select a work environment that enhances your attention as opposed to competing for it.
Closing thought: In recent years, “digital detoxing” has become a popular mechanism for fightin digital burnout. But like fad dieting, these retreats don’t work long-term. Boundaries do. Lifestyle changes do. Quitting the tools that are so valuable to our work, relationships, and knowledge is not the solution. Learning when to use them and when to put them aside is. Again, timing is everything. I wish you success. ■
This story first published January 29, 2015 on citrix.com