One of the most important skills you can develop is the ability to focus. Anything you can do to improve your focus is going to make you more successful. Any non-trivial task requires focus and attention if you want to reach any level of productivity. When you aren’t focused, tasks take significantly longer, are prone to mistakes and in some cases progress is impossible.
The multi-tasking myth has done more to destroy our ability to focus than just about anything. People consider multi-tasking to be something they are proud of. After all, computers multi-task right? It turns out that humans are amazingly horrible at multi-tasking. Many people feel like they are improving their focus by multitasking when they are really doing the opposite. In a computer, multi-tasking is what keeps the clock ticking and music playing while you are writing a document and receiving email in the back ground. Computer processors can only do one thing at a time. Multi-core and multi-processor systems can generally do 2 to 4 things at a time, but we’ll stick with the model that is most closely related to how we think. In order for a computer to look like it is doing all of those things at once, it has to rapidly switch between different tasks. Lets say that you have the following programs running:
- Word processor
- Music Player
Now, lets say that you have 300 processor time slots. If you spend all 300 on the word processor, you’ll stop hearing the music. If you spend all of them on the music player, your word processor will appear to freeze up. To make things run smoothly, your computer will rapidly switch back and forth between the different programs. The word processor will listen for a keystroke, then email will perform part of the email checking operation then the music player will run for a short period, then back to the word processor. It all happens so quickly that the person running the computer doesn’t notice the constant shifting back and forth. This switching is called a “context shift”. The processor has to unload the information for one program and pull in everything it needs to perform a few operations for the next program it needs to run.
Back to our example of 300 processor time-slots: If you want to run 10 slots per program each program won’t get the full 10 time-slots. There is overhead involved in switching contexts. So perhaps the word processor will get 9 time-slots, one will be used up in the context switch and then the email program will get 9, etc. This means that multi-tasking isn’t as efficient as single tasking because some of the processor time-slots are used up switching between programs. With a computer, this doesn’t really matter. Chances are, the computer is going to be waiting on you anyway, so losing a bunch of potential processor time-slots to context shifting doesn’t cause any type of noticeable performance degradation. However, humans are very different than computers.
Our process of switching contexts is very very slow. I once did some work for a software company where they had a nightmare code base. I was brought in after they had lost a significant portion of their source code and the sole programmer for that project had quit. The mess of code was nearly impossible to understand. The other programmers they talked to suggested just starting over and spend the next year or so rewriting the whole thing. This might not have been a bad idea, but there were many customers that had already purchased this $50,000 piece of software and had it customized for their particular environment. They needed bug fixes immediately. Evidently I was one of the only people willing to try to work on it.
Well designed software code segments the complexity so humans can get their mind around it to work on the software. If you need to work on a particular area, you only have to think about that area and maybe one or two other areas. The code base of this project was such a horrendous mess that even a small fix required understanding the interactions between 15 to 20 different parts of the code simultaneously. The context shift to mentally get to that point was very time-consuming. It would often take 45 minutes or more just to get in the right frame of reference to start working on a bug. An interruption would literally set the process back by 20 or 30 minutes.
Obviously this is an extreme example, but the same thing happens with nearly any non-trivial task. Often a significant amount of time is spent just getting to the point where you can begin to actually do efficient work by having the proper focus. Even if it only takes you 5 minutes to get back into the right mental context, three short interruptions per hour will destroy at least 25% of your productivity–and that isn’t even accounting for any time dealing with the real interruption.
Our modern working conditions create an environment that is incredibly prone to distractions. We have all kinds of technology at our finger tips that can distract us and that gives us the ability to distract other people. Everything from email to inexpensive long distance is conspiring to destroy our productivity. It can be very difficult to improve your focus when the onslaught of new distracting technologies keeps giving us new things to steal our focus from actual productive work.
Take the Internet for example. I remember working in a tech support department when getting a driver was a matter of phoning, faxing or mailing a company to try to get a copy of a physical disk sent to you. The really advanced companies had BBS systems that you could dial into and download a file. Fast forward to our current work environment and we can quickly get anything we need off the Internet. While on one hand this saves a lot of time, it creates a huge potential for distraction. A significant portion of the world’s knowledge is only a few clicks away. Sitting at your desk while connected to the Internet is about like trying to work in the middle of a Worlds Fair sitting mere steps away from amazing displays and exhibits.
It wasn’t that long ago that making a telephone actually cost money. Now it isn’t something we really think about. Cost is rarely a barrier to making a call. At the drop of a hat we can call someone down the hall or across the world–and they can call us too.
All of the tools we use to communicate come with a distraction cost. It isn’t that they are bad in and of themselves, but they do cost focus. You can’t get any important project done with any reasonable amount of productivity if you are constantly getting interrupted or distracting yourself.
Feeling Busy/Feeling Important
Most people have some unconscious beliefs about their importance that are particularly bad for focus. We tend to believe that important people are busy people. Thus we believe that if we are busy we are important. That’s why we have this strange compulsion to constantly check our email. Every time we hear from someone, it makes us feel just a bit more important. This is a very dangerous mental state because it basically means that the less efficiently we work, the better we’ll feel about ourselves.
Be very careful that you aren’t measuring your self-worth by the amount of times you get interrupted during the day. It may sound silly when you put it like that, but I urge you to really honestly look at how you work and the emotions that go along with your work. If you are getting positive reinforcement when you get interrupted from doing work, you are setting yourself up for failure.
If this is happening, you will over time stop spending as much time on important work and spend more time on interruption tasks that add low overall value to your work. To avoid this, you need to reprogram the way you think to focus on high value tasks. Here are a few suggestions:
- The to-do list. A list of things you need to get done that are important can help you stay focused on high value tasks.
- Debrief yourself. At the end of the day spend a few minutes writing down what you accomplished. Assign each entry a number that corresponds to its relative value.
- Most important task. Having 1 to 3 “most important tasks” that you are definitely going to accomplish each day can be a good way to make sure you are defining what is important correctly.
- Use concrete metrics. Judge your performance on solid metrics–not how you feel about yourself. Measure things that actually contribute to your success.
Creating an Environment of Focus
I once read about an author who built a cabin up in the mountains for writing. His desk faced a window looking out over the valley. It was an inspiring view with eagles soaring with the distant mountains as a backdrop. The trouble was, he couldn’t get any work done. He finally solved the problem and improved his focus by turning his desk around so his back was toward the beautiful inspiring scenery.
You have to be very honest with yourself if you want to create a good environment for focusing. The TV in your office may be costing you a lot more time than you think. Clutter and disorganization can sap away your ability to focus as well. Depending on how your mind works, music may be a detriment to your ability to focus on certain tasks.
Outside of blind luck, your success is going to strongly correlate with your ability to improve your focus. Understanding how you mind works and the types of things that are distracting to you as an individual can make a great difference in how much you are able to accomplish in a given amount of time. In particular, make sure that you aren’t confusing being busy with being productive and tailor your environment and work habits to favor production rather than motion.
Jack Koetting says
This was a real eye opener as far as the “hidden” distractions that you sometimes aren’t even aware are happening. It’s a matter of priorities. How important is the task, and what’s the level of focus you’re willing to apply?
Lisa Raymond says
So very true! When my desk is cluttered, I honestly have a harder time concentrating on the task(s) at hand. Now the 2nd step in this wonderful reminder is to keep clutter away, keep the desk clean! :) Thanks for the tips!
Ola Otto says
I absolutely love this article. It is so to the point. So many of us have been culturally trained to multi-task because at one time, that’s what society seemed to think we needed to do. Now, however, that seems to not be the case – as you so accurately pointed out! Thanks for posting this! Ola
Mark Shead says
Good point. I think a lot of times we do things because that is what we see others doing–not because it really makes any sense.
I totally agree with this. You only have to be on the phone with someone who is also checking their email while talking to you to realise that multi-tasking is not all it’s cracked up to be.
I read an article a while back that said multi-tasking should more accurately be called ‘toggling’ i.e. not doing two thing simultaneously, but switching rapidly back and forth between tasks. I think your computer v brain example is very apt.
Ola Otto says
Ron Gallo says
Good article, but I found four typos to be quite distracting.
Thanks a lot, this with focus is something I have been working on some time now. I found your tips very helpful. Another method I have been using now for a while is “Pomodoro”; focus 25 min, 5 min break. Repeat as many pomodoros as you can.
Vernon Blake says
I have read many articles and studies that re-iterate that “multi-tasking” is simply impossible, and is not to be confused with “background tasking”, such as eating a meal or exercising while watching a television program.
At best, what one is really accomplishing is “Switch-tasking”, where you are changing your focus from one task to another. This IS possible, but very inefficient, usually requiring several minutes to re-focus for each new task.
What one needs is to develop focused “Mono-tasking” to improve productivity.
A good, short read for those not convinced is, “The Myth of Multi-tasking: When Doing It All Gets Nothing Done” by Dave Crenshaw.
Mark Shead says
You make a good point about “background tasking”. There are things that can be done at the same time. Walking and talking is a good example. However, tasks that require mental function aren’t good candidates for combining. For example, I can’t program and listen to music at the same time. It takes too much effort for me to ignore the music.
Vernon Blake says
One type of “background tasking” that never ceases to amaze me is one’s ability to drive a vehicle along a familiar route while enjoying the radio or casual conversation with a passenger (not to be confused with cell phone use or texting … which as you said requires much more mental focus).
We are able to steer, accelerate, brake, navigate, instantly react to being cut-off in traffic or a stray pedestrian, all while whistling or singing along with a familiar song.
But add any task requiring more mental focus, such as an in-depth, detailed, or emotional discussion with a passenger or attempting to manipulate a cell phone, or eating/sipping a beverage and our ability to drive safely is greatly diminished.
Background tasking is possible, but only when the tasks are very familiar and require little or no mental focus. Even then, one must be very careful and realize there is a fine line between “background” and “switch” tasking.
Multitasking is a myth, WOW!
Great article. I think way too many people confuse being busy with being productive. Although it’s not always reasonable to expect that you will be able to single-task. You just need to create certain blocks of time to focus on a single item and other times where interruptions and multi-tasking are possible.
Lots of people work with music playing in the background. I tried it and I absolutely can’t do it. It is so distracting. I’m glad I arrived at this conclusion sooner. Thank you for the good article!
Virtual Subcontract Team says
Great article. I can’t say enough about trying to get focused. When I am it makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something. One area that I’m finding to help me focus is creating checklists for everything. If I can cross it off I can consider I was focused at it.
I’ve found meditation to be a great way to improve my focus. I slow myself down and I’m not super-hyper trying to multi-task everything. I actually use holosync and neuro-programmer if you’re interested, and I’ve been very impressed with both so far. It would be great if you did a review on them.