Focus is a critical part of doing excellent work, yet most people tend to multi-task out of what feels like necessity and may even believe they do better work this way. Handling multiple priorities is definitely an important skill in these fast-paced times, but the ability to balance that frenzied doing work with calm, deep thinking work sets apart those who are truly effective.
When we try to make the shift to a balance of let’s say 20% focus time and 80% multi-tasking, it sounds good on paper, but it’s usually quite challenging to execute. As with all new initiatives, as soon as we make the commitment, we almost always trigger resistance, from both the outside and the inside.
Here is a list of what we’ve found gets in the way of focus; some of these might surprise you:
1. Your neural wiring: You are more effective when you focus, however it may not feel that way at first. If you’re used to multi-tasking, you’ve likely trained your brain to expect to switch gears every few seconds, and when you don’t have that constant “pinging” of interruptions, it might feel weird or wrong. Research shows that people who multi-task a lot are below average at ignoring irrelevant information, organizing information in their heads, and effectively switching from one task to another. Yet they believe they are good at multi-tasking (we’ll take a closer look at this in a moment). The only way to re-assess a belief is to keep an open mind and find ways to get new information – in baby steps. For example, as an experiment, set a timer and focus on one thing for five minutes at a time. If you notice this is making you more productive, your brain will immediately get excited about it and start wanting more. Then you can stretch to 10 minutes at a time and work your way up to whatever seems optimal given the environment you live and work in.
2. The belief that multi-tasking is more productive: Science has shown that this isn’t true. The fact is, our brains are adapting to better handle the interruption-driven world we live in, which is resulting in more people struggling with ADD. Our bodies and brains can and will adapt to whatever environment we live in. But adapting isn’t necessarily thriving. If you have doubts about whether taking time to focus will make a difference, but you’re also intrigued enough to be willing to experiment, come up with a way to measure how well you do a certain part of your work and try it both ways. Then, if you see a benefit from getting more time to focus, the internal battle is won – and it’s time to handle those external obstacles!
3. Worry about what’s not getting done: One of the reasons we try to do more than one thing at once is because there is so much to do, and every time we try to focus on one thing, everything else that needs to get done jumps up and down urgently in our minds screaming for attention. This creates a kind of spinning where we take one action then “spin” and take an action related to something else, without taking enough action on any one thing to complete it and put it aside. A simple to do list can often help slow the spin by getting all those monkeys out of your head and on paper. You can even break down tasks into little sub tasks that take 5-10 minutes apiece. Knowing everything is written down assures that you won’t forget it, so you can put all those things out of your mind. Pick one thing on your list and focus on it until it’s done, and then you can cross it off your list. Each time you cross off an item, you’ll feel a sense of progress and get a hit of dopamine in your brain that gets you clear and motivated to take your next step.
4. Guilt about others possibly needing you: We are told that to be a good team player we should help each other and be available for each other. That’s true, but everyone you are helping can do better work if they also have time to focus. I can’t tell you how many clients have told me they get more work done when their boss is away. When a team gets intentional about alternating check-in time with focus time, the whole team levels up. Most teams have standing meetings at the beginning of each day, but if you work in a highly collaborative environment, you may choose to do three 15-minute standing check-in meetings each day – just to ask each other questions and report back on things. Or you can check in for five minutes each hour. Use any pattern that gives everyone relief from looking at messages for a solid period of time, while also enabling regular check ins. This intentional synchronization elevates the entire team.
5. Not knowing how to set boundaries and expectations: It’s really difficult for one person to battle against an entire culture of interruption-driven colleagues. It takes energy to drive change, and if you are already struggling to get time to focus, you are probably too overwhelmed to drive organizational change. You do need your colleagues to like working with you and see you as a valuable part of the team, so it’s understandable that you might be reluctant to set a boundary if you don’t know how to do it without coming across as selfish or uncooperative. The best way to communicate is often to be honest but also humble. You could say something like, “I’m trying an experiment to see if I can be more productive and get better work done by focusing deeply with no interruptions for part of the day. I’ve set aside 8am to 11am to focus, but I’m happy to check in with you first thing in the morning to see if you need anything and again right before lunch. Would that work?” Then if someone interrupts you during your focus time, you can say, “I’m tied up / working on finishing something up right now, but can I get back to you at 11am?” Or just, “Can I address this / get this to you right after lunch today?”
One thing we might forget to consider when trying to make a change to working in a more focused, proactive manner is how it changes our presence.
As you think of people you know, compare your impression of those who are always frantically multi-tasking to your impression of those who seem calm and on top of their work. Think of the difference in credibility and your perception of their competence. What impression you want others to have of you?
Be patient with yourself. If you see the value in producing higher quality work and want to use focus time to improve your productivity, you can definitely get there. I’ve done it myself and worked with many clients who have done it as well. But it does take time, and you should expect to encounter resistance. But with consistent practice, just one step at a time, you’ll notice a significant difference over time. Good luck and don’t hesitate to reach out with questions!