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Why Can't I Focus at Work?

Improving your concentration can improve your productivity.

Allyson Lewis, 02/24/2011

In 2006, I published my first book on time management and productivity, The Seven Minute Difference: Small Steps to Big Changes. That book is based on the premise that the average adult has an attention span of approximately seven minutes. And, if your daily work life is like mine, I believe the average attention span is closer to 30 seconds! Why is it so difficult to focus your attention?

There are numerous articles suggesting that television is the primary culprit for our seven-minute attention span. Our generation has grown up with TV as a part of our lives. A Nielson's study reported in May 2009 that the average American watched 153 hours of television per month--that is more than five hours per day. It should come as no surprise that this volume of television would begin to "rewire" your brain patterns, indicating that your seven-minute attention span would come from watching the seven minutes of programming followed by regular commercial interruptions. Over and over again this pattern of as little as seven minutes of concentration followed by interruption has predisposed us to have difficulty focusing our attention for long periods of time.

Even more specific is the 2008 study commissioned by the insurance company Lloyds TSB Insurance. The study was looking for correlations between short attention spans and home accidents. They hired the David Moxson psychological consultancy company and tested a sample of 1,004 British adults. The results showed that the participants had an average attention span of five minutes and seven seconds, down from an average attention span of 12 to 15 minutes in the 1990s.

What is Attention?
Attention is how you choose to cognitively allocate the processing resources of your brain. The brain definitely has limited resources and we cannot focus our complete attention on more than one thing at a time. But, when you choose to focus your full attention on completing the task at hand it only makes sense that your productivity and efficiency would increase.

Why can't I focus my attention at work?
At work you are utilizing two primary types of attention: divided attention and sustained attention. Divided attention also known as "task switching" or "multitasking" and is a deceiving type of attention. It seems logical that if you could talk on the phone and send out an e-mail at the same time, then completing two tasks simultaneously would be the best use of your time. In reality, your brain does not have the cognitive capacity to "multitask." Your brain cannot focus on two things simultaneously. Your brain is actually switching its focus from one task to the other, amazingly costing you MORE time and effort than if you would focus on accomplishing one task at a time.

Gloria Mark is a professor at the University of California-Irvine who studies attention span and multitasking. She says the average worker switches tasks every three minutes and is interrupted every two minutes. From incoming and outgoing phone calls, to the vibration of your Blackberry e-mails, to the constant chime of text messages, to people walking in your office--every day is filled with what could only politely be called divided attention.
It is no wonder you can't pay attention--there is simply too much work coming at you and it is distracting you from being able to focus your attention on getting the work done that is right in front of you.

How can I improve my ability to pay attention?
Sustained attention is focused attention. Sustained attention occurs when you have consciously decided which task is most important to focus on and you place all of your physical and mental energy and effort on starting and completely finishing that task before moving on to a different task.

First: The first step is clarifying exactly what you want to accomplish. By taking even seven minutes to create a daily written plan of action you will be able to focus your full attention on precisely what you need to do.

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