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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.

Second: It is important to realize that the human attention span is a very limited resource. More than 20 years ago I arrived at Yosemite National Park at night. Our group could see nothing except what the headlights of our car illuminated. Imagine our awe when we woke up in the morning and stepped outside our tent to look at the sheer rock face of the 3,000 foot tall El Capitan. The night before we could only pay attention to the 50 yards directly in front of us; in the daylight we became aware of the entirety of the beauty surrounding us. What are you missing out on because your focus is so narrow and your attention span so short?

Third: Your ability to pay attention is not only a cognitive skill--it is also a physical skill. Appropriate sleep, good nutrition, and regular exercise will all play a role in how well you are able to pay attention.

Fourth: In order to work at your highest level of attention and focus, plan to work on your most difficult tasks when you feel the most physically alert. For some people their most productive time is first thing in the morning, for others it may be late at night. Regardless, schedule your day appropriately.

Finally: By improving your concentration you will improve your efficiency and productivity. Once you know exactly how you want to focus your attention, then executing your daily activities will become a simple "yes" or "no" decision. When you chose to do what you say you will do--you can choose to focus your attention like a laser.

The premise of The Seven Minute Difference is that there are hundreds of tiny actions you can take in as little as seven minutes each day to improve your focus and concentration. In seven minutes you could:
* Create your written daily plan of action. We call this creating your five before 11 list. Make a list of five high-value activities that you commit to complete before 11 a.m.
* Turn off your e-mail alerts so that you won't be constantly distracted
* Take a short break at least once an hour to stretch
* Walk up and down a few flights of stairs to increase the blood flow to your brain
* Drink a bottle of water to stay hydrated
* Eat a protein bar to provide your brain the nutrients it needs to focus
* Reduce the distractions in your physical environment by decluttering one corner of your desk

The reality of the life you experience is based on what you choose to pay attention to. By increasing your attention span and your ability to concentrate you can improve your daily productivity. Even though you may be predisposed to have only a seven minute attention span, there are many practical steps you can take to help you focus at work.

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