Finding Focus at Work

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Whitewater Work Environment

There was a time in years past when managers and technical leaders took time to calmly reflect on options and strategies. Communication was by phone and mail. Deadlines for deliverables were set weeks or months in the future. No, really. There was a time.

But no more. In my presentations, I use an image of a ship captain with his hand on the ship's wheel navigating the course to represent business during that earlier time. But today's business environment is more like whitewater rafting. The rapids are turbulent. Communication is critical but the noise and distractions are deafening. Making sound decisions quickly is vital to keeping afloat. But in this environment, it's hard to focus.

I recently interviewed renowned psychiatrist Dr. Edward Hallowell. For thirty years he has been an expert on Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) in children and adults. Today, he mostly provides counseling to business people who have lost their ability to focus. Many of his clients refer to him as "the focus doctor."

Dr Hallowell told me that many of his business clients do not clinically have ADHD but they behave as if they do. They exhibit what he calls "attention deficit traits," such as:

• A persistent feeling of being rushed or a constant sense of urgency
• An inability to sustain full attention to a thought or conversation
• A tendency toward impatience, frustration or irritability
• A tendency to jump from task to task, idea to idea or place to place
• A tendency to make decisions impulsively, rather than think them through

Dr. Hallowell said that the smart phone is keeping people continually connected, never really off work. As a result, corporations expect employees to do more, better, faster with fewer resources. "Never in history has the human brain been asked to track so many data points," said Dr. Hallowell in his Harvard Business Review article "Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform."

Business professionals in my seminars confirm that work demands are consuming them. To get quality work completed, many of them are taking work home daily and often working through the weekends.

So what is it in the modern work environment that is contributing to this "whitewater turbulence?" Here are two significant factors:

Information Overload

Neuroscientist Nicholas Carr said, "Information technology is changing our brains, making us less focused and less capable of deep thought."

Information Overload Research Group
, a non-profit organization, concludes information overload wastes 25% of workers' time costing the U.S. economy alone $997 billion annually.

One of the ways people try to cope with information overload is by attempting to multi-task. In reality they are merely switching their attention from one task to another, which leads to errors and diminishes the quality their work and relationships.

Writer and consultant Linda Stone coined the term "continuous partial attention," which means we are trying to stay connected to everything at once and are not able to focus on any one thing.

Interruption and Distraction

A recent study by the University of California Irvine found that:

• The average office worker is interrupted every 3 minutes
• The average recovery time to fully refocus is 23 minutes
• The average number of windows open on a desktop is 8
• On average employees check e-mail 30 times an hour
• 28% of a worker's day is spent with unnecessary interruptions

Consider the case of intercontinental airline pilots who require uninterrupted time to enter data into the plane's navigation computer. That data ensures that the plane flies the correct course to avoid a mid-air collision. If left unchecked, a continuous stream of visitors enters the cockpit to request or provide information or assistance, regularly interrupting the flight crew. Pilots often institute a "quiet zone" during these critical periods during which nobody is authorized to enter the flight deck.

A large pediatric hospital I was consulting with found that interruption and distraction were the primary cause of medical errors. For example, nurses in charge of distributing medication to children patients were frequently interrupted with questions. The team developed a system of prevention by placing a red arm band on the medication nurse. During the time the nurse wore that arm band, no communication with her was allowed so that he or she could focus on the job at hand.

Attention span is the amount of time one can spend on a task without being interrupted. A Microsoft study revealed that our attention span is in decline. In the year 2000 the average attention span was 12 seconds. In 2015 it was 8.5 seconds. The same study found the attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds. The study concluded that our minds wonder at least 30% of the time.

What can we do to focus in this whitewater environment?

It is certain that to perform critical tasks you have to focus. You have find ways to minimize distractions and your company must support you in this. Here are some steps that might help you.

• Prioritize what matters most -- this minute, this hour, and today.
• Concentrate on your most important task for 90 minutes, then shift your attention to more routine tasks, such as checking e-mails, returning calls, taking a break, or taking a short walk.
• Create a productive work environment that reduces interruption and distraction. You may need to close your door and inform colleagues of your scheduled "focus" time. Dr. Hallowell told me the story of Tim Armstrong CEO of AOL and how he made a mandatory policy for his senior leaders to commit 4 hours a week to just thinking. It is called "10% Think Time." At first his leaders resisted but later discovered fresh innovative ideas that transformed the company.
• Temporarily unplug from your electronic world. That includes your cell phone, personal digital assistant, and your e-mail app if incoming messages are audible and distract you.
• Allow downtime to simply do nothing.

It seems there is little that can be done to reduce the impact of work demands and the constant rush of information and data streams. Regardless of that, functioning at the top of your game or perhaps even surviving at work will require you to carve out a little time on a regular basis for concentration and focus.

Sandy Smith
is a keynote speaker, training specialist, and consultant on today's most critical business issues.