We live in an era of information overload. We’re constantly bombarded with information via email, smartphones, television, radio, social media, internet, and advertising. The scarcest resource we have is not our time, but our attention.
To be highly productive in a world of information overload, you need to be ruthless about applying your attention. Traditional time management has had its day. We can’t make more time, but we can make sure we’re applying our full attention and mental energy when we are working. Your productivity increases as you focus your attention and focus on the tasks that have a real impact.
Deal with Digital Distraction
Our smartphones tweet, beep, blink, buzz, vibrate, and occasionally even ring. Stopping to check these messages breaks your concentration and attention. Even having your phone on silent, hearing the buzz, but not checking it, it still takes 23 minutes to regain your concentration.
Take control and turn off these alerts. You decide when you want to check Facebook or LinkedIn, don’t let an alert decide for you. And if you want to really get focused, put your phone into airplane mode for 50 minutes and work on one important task. You’ll be amazed at how much you get done.
Set Chunks of Time for Productive Work
With knowledge work, our best work comes when we are thinking deeply. For example if you need to assess the risks for a project, write a persuasive presentation, or manage a difficult conversation, then you’ll perform better if you focus and concentrate.
Our attention spans are typically about 20-50 minutes. Like a muscle, it can improve with training. Every day set aside one or two chunks of time (20-50 minutes) in your schedule to do focused work on the these challenging tasks. Choose tasks that will have an impact on your job, organization, or career.
Avoid the Busy Work Trap
It’s easy to fall into the trap of doing busy work. Busy work makes you feel like you’re achieving something because you’re active. Responding to emails is a classic example of busy work. It feels great to be killing a pile of emails from your inbox. But ask yourself – How many emails are you processing a day? How many of these are adding value to your job, your career, or your organization?
A survey by McKinsey showed the typical knowledge worker spends 28% of their week processing emails, but it is only adding 7-8% of value. You need to be ruthless and cut back your emails to the ones that add value. Sometimes you need to ask the hard question – if I don’t answer or read this email, what is the worst that will happen?
Similarly, meetings are another way to feel busy but are often not very productive. How much more would you achieve if you could get out of meetings that are not relevant and adding value? It takes courage, but someone has to ask.
Multi-tasking is rapidly switching your concentration from one task to another. If the tasks aren’t important, then you might get away with it (e.g., watching TV while skim reading the newspaper). But if you want to be productive on some challenging work, then you need to focus on one task at a time.
The fragmentation of your attention is also not very psychologically satisfying. It leaves you feeling like you haven’t achieved much by the end of your day as you’ve been jumping from one task to another and leaving some unfinished.
In a world where attention is a scarce resource, you’ll achieve more if you focus your mental energy on impactful tasks. Take control, and don’t let your precious attention be distracted away by your device, busy work, and multitasking.
About the Author
Jane Piper is a Registered Psychologist and is the author of Focus in the Age of Distraction, (£12.00, Panoma Press). She has over 20 years of experience working with individuals and SMEs. Three years ago, she set up her own company, Pipsy, and consults to organizations on people management and coaches people on careers and stress management.