Even though we know that multi-tasking is an unproductive way to use our time, let’s face it – most of us still give into the habit of trying to do more than one thing at a time. In fact most workplaces still expect us to juggle multiple tasks at the same time. Workplace expectations have not quite caught up with current research that shows that our brains do not function in the same way as computers.
But there is something else that’s happening that might even be worse than multi-tasking when it comes to being focused and productive at work.
Life in the 21st century means we exist in a state of continuous partial attention, a term coined by writer Linda Stone almost 20 years ago. Basically we are constantly partly paying attention to everything. Nothing actually gets our full attention. Think of it as being in a perpetual state of scanning our world.
It’s not the same thing as multi-tasking. They actually have different motivations. When we are multi-tasking we are trying to do 2 things at once with the intent to be more productive. Continuous partial attention has the intent of constantly scanning in order to not miss anything.
It’s important to note that continuous partial attention is not a bad thing. Being able to scan the environment to see what’s up is a basic survival skill. The problem is that we are now asking our brains to do it constantly. Our world has expanded to include our digital world. We are hyper-connected and don’t want to miss out on anything that is happening in the virtual world.
It’s even created a new syndrome:
FOMO – the fear of missing out
If you think that this doesn’t apply to you, think again.
The average person checks into their digital world twice as often as they think they do. A recent study found that you are probably checking your smart phone at least 85 times per day. Our technology is always within reach and we begin to feel a little anxious when we haven’t checked for the latest update or email.
So what does this mean at work?
It’s natural for our attention to ebb and flow. Our brains use about 20% of our energy resources so periodically they need to “power down” for a bit. When your brain is overloaded, it naturally switches to a simpler task to save energy. The more challenging the task you are working on, the more likely it is that you will become distracted. Given the data overload world we live in, our brains are often being asked to do more than the available resources allow.
Add to that the highly distractible workplaces we have created in which the average worker is interrupted every 3 minutes, it’s no wonder we feel like we can’t get stuff done.
Does it really matter?
It’s not just the increased stress of feeling like you aren’t being as productive as you would like to be. The problem with a lack of attention at work is that impacts on your ability to build rapport you’re your co-workers, it creates disengagement, and it fosters an environment in which you are more likely to make mistakes.
So given that your attention is constantly wavering, how can you be more focused and productive at work?
Recognize when distraction may be a signal that your brain needs a rest. If you are constantly distracted it might be time to take a break, go for a walk, or spend a few minutes consciously breathing to allow your brain a little time to recharge.
Manage your notifications. Turn off the bells and whistles. You don’t have to be Pavlov’s dog checking for updates every time something beeps and buzzes. Create a routine for when you check rather than doing it randomly.
Formal mindfulness practice helps teach us how to recognize when we have been distracted and how to bring ourselves back to the task at hand. It also helps us tap into what our body is telling us. You can learn to listen for the signals that your brain needs a break.