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.