If you are a typical American office worker, you are distracted from your job once every three minutes, and it can take up as much as 23 minutes to get back on track.
According to studies led by Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, those distractions are both ones we can control – such as checking our inboxes or our social media pages – to one we cannot control – such as colleagues stopping by our desks to chat.
In his book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, Daniel Goleman explains that we can be sidetracked by both sensory and emotional distractions. While some of us are able to tune out sensory distractions, such as music playing next door or ads on a computer page, others cannot. Similarly some people cannot focus on their work at times of emotional upset in their personal lives because they cannot tune those feelings out.
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Five ways to increase your attention span
All those distractions can add up to several hours of lost time each workday. If you find yourself – or your employees – losing focus more than you would like, there are some steps you can take to re-prioritize. Here are five ways you can approve your attention span:
- Be a note-taker and a list-maker. If you’re like most of us, you come up with some of your best ideas at the oddest times. Keep a note pad handy to write down your ideas. By making a note of it, you will free your mind of the fear that you will forget the new concept and therefore, you will be able to continue to focus fully on the task at hand.
Make a to-do list for your day to help keep you focused on what is important. A study published in the journal Science reported that the human brain can handle two complicated tasks simultaneously, but that when a third task is added in, it can begin making errors. Keeping a list or schedule helps you map out your day and stay better on top of things. In addition, when you check something off your list, you will be energized and refocused to tackle something else.
- Take a screen break. When we are plugged in all the time, we are doing our brains a disservice. Nicholas Carr reports in his book The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains that the Internet may be harming out conceptual thought processes and making us essentially scatter-brained. Set limits on your time with digital devices. Turn them off in the evening and focus on other activities, such as reading a book, playing a board game or listening to music.
If you use a computer at work, take regular breaks that involve you getting up and away from your desk. Clear your mind by going for a quick walk, even if it is just down the hall. According to research by the University of Illinois led by psychologist Alejandro Lleras, when 84 study participants were given a 50-minute-long computer task, those who took two short breaks performed the task better.
- Find the time for fun. In order to stay on task, it is important to have something to look forward to doing when you are done.
Researchers have found that we have a lot of work to do, we panic and then are distracted by our panic. If you schedule in something enjoyable, such as a lunch date with a friend or a walk in the park, it helps break up your day into more productive time periods.
- Change your environment. Simple changes in your surroundings can help you be more focused. Shut the door to cut down on office chatter. Install a white noise machine in your office.
Does music help you concentrate? Listen to soothing sounds while you work. Researchers from Kyoto University found that study participants who listened to a Mozart minuet were better able to ability to focus on tasks and shut out distractions.
- Time yourself. Time can be a funny thing. We can think we are working on something longer than we really are. To understand how much time you really need to accomplish something, keep better track of your day. There are a variety or time tracking apps on the market, or you can simply set a timer on your phone for 30 minutes to see what you have accomplished in that time period.
Many psychologists recommend a process called “chunking.” By breaking your time into “chunks” or manageable pieces, you can prevent yourself from getting distracted. You can even break a 30-minute task into two 15-minute chunks with a short break in between.
Each of us has different reasons for being distracted and, therefore, there are different remedies. Pay attention to your triggers. Do you have a need to constantly check your e-mail? Set fixed times such as first thing in the morning, right before lunch, and at the end of the day to open your inbox to prevent it from derailing your productivity.
Does a co-worker come in to talk at the same time each day, causing you to have to stay after work to make a deadline? Be honest and explain that it is your “crunch” time and offer to grab a drink after work with him or her instead.
By doing a little self-reflective detective work, you will find out the root cause of your distraction and go a long way toward overcoming it.