What’s the number one thing holding your productivity back?
It turns out that people switch screens once every 40 seconds in a typical workday.
But when we switch screens, we suffer a cognitive switching penalty.
It takes us out of flow — where we do our best work — and it takes us about 23 minutes to get back into the zone afterward.
Not only that but switching all day can leave us utterly exhausted with very little to show for it.
But before you start blaming big tech for hijacking your attention, it’s important that we first look in the mirror.
90 percent of the time, when we reach for our phones or switch screens, it’s not because of push notifications. Rather, it is because of our own internal distractions and discomfort.
- A biological desire to conserve energy and take the path of least effort.
- An urge to pick up our phones and check social media.
- The desire for human connection.
- Wanting to distract ourselves from the stress or anxiety experienced over some external event.
The list goes on.
So how can we become better at overcoming these internal distractions, and free ourselves up for extended periods of focus?
1. Embrace ‘one thing at a time’ away from your desk
If you’re at the gym, focus on working out without checking your phone between sets.
If you’re going for a walk, observe nature and leave your phone at home.
If you’re reading a book, read an entire chapter without switching to something else — the same goes with episodes of TV shows on Netflix.
The more we can train our brains to focus on one thing at a time, the better we will become at it, both away from and at our desks.
When we meditate, our brains stop processing information as actively as they were before we sat down.
The brain’s frontal lobe — responsible for emotions — goes offline.
The parietal lobe — responsible for orienting you in space and time — slows down.
The thalamus — responsible for funneling incoming sensory information — becomes numb.
As a result, you emerge calmer and with renewed clarity from which you can tackle your day, and your work.
Similarly, when we exhale — our heart rate effectively slows down.
By spending a few minutes exhaling for longer than we inhale, we slow our heart rate down, and calm the body — something that is fundamentally intertwined with the mind.
Typically, when our minds are aroused by external matters, and occupied by a recent event, or an event yet to come, it pays to journal.
Doing so transfers our thoughts onto paper, and vacates mental real estate for your work.
Last but not least, notice what is causing the distraction.
Each time you are struggling to focus on your work, write down why you think that might be.
A lack of sleep?
A lack of sunlight?
You ate too much for lunch?
You don’t enjoy the task?
Over a period of time you’ll notice patterns emerge. Once you know what prevents you from focusing, you can then make changes to design around it.
Similarly, when you are focused, write down why that might be. Similar patterns will emerge.
Perhaps you had a great conversation that put you in good spirits.
Perhaps you slept well, ate a light lunch, exercised that morning, or meditated.
These are five simple things that we can begin to experiment with to overcome the internal distractions that wreak havoc on our productivity.
After all, as my former podcast guest, Scott Belsky, put it, the true scarce resource of our time is attention.
If you can learn to better cultivate and foster your attention, you will have a significant advantage over everybody else who is mindlessly switching tasks all day long.
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