Staying focussed

How can we focus in a working environment that encourages us to engage with constant distractions?

Not only do we live in a world with more things to distract us than at any time in history, but it is also a world in which multitasking is seen as a skill to be admired and developed. But the fact is that we are only beginning to understand how the brain responds to even apparently minor distractions such as text messages. We are still learning how to come to terms with a technological and working environment that encourages us to engage with distractions almost on a second-by-second basis.

This can be a particular problem when we are doing things that demand focus. As humans we can underestimate not only our ability to focus on tasks, but also how important that is in terms of doing them well and accomplishing our goals. We can only multi-task within set limits and we cannot do it at all without cost.

What we call multi-tasking is often merely shifting our focus between tasks. For example, the reason we find it so hard to make phone calls while driving is that the same parts of our brain are involved in the same task. We can do it by switching our attention back and to, but it’s asking for trouble. US statistics suggest drivers are four times more likely to crash while on the phone than if they are concentrating on driving.

It’s not just the switching between tasks that is a problem. It takes time to make the adjustment between them. In a 2008 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers from the University of Michigan conducted tests in which people had to solve maths problems. The researchers found that people lost time when they switched between tasks. And when the tasks were more complex or unfamiliar, they took even longer to make the switch.

The touchstones for distraction in the modern workplace are not the noise and interruptions of our colleagues but the smartphone, tablets and laptops  which connects us to an endless stream of calls, messages, notifications and updates which can jerk us out of the moment and severely hamper our productivity.  A study last year by architects Gensler of 90,000 people found that ‘the most significant factor in workplace effectiveness is not collaboration, it’s individual focus work.’ Conversely, the report also concludes that ‘focus is also the workplace environment’s least effectively supported activity.’

It’s no wonder there are signs of a backlash which is manifesting itself in both the design and culture of the workplace. It’s even becoming a sign of prestige for senior managers to expose themselves to as few distractions as possible. A survey published at the end of last year by the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business found that older professionals and those with higher incomes are far more likely to think it is inappropriate to be checking text messages or emails during meetings.

The survey is given added credibility by the fact that some of the world’s most successful business people are now apparently returning to dumb phones because a constant stream of emails and other distractions are less important to them than an ability to stay focussed. According to a December 2013 feature in the Financial Times, the phone of choice for the likes of Sir Philip Green, Martin Schulz and Julian Dunkerton is a battered old Nokia 6310 which has no access to the Internet but does keep them in the moment.