The average person’s mind is distracted 47 percent of the time, according to a 2010 Harvard study.1
This means that nearly half the time you are doing one thing and thinking about something else. Neuroscientists have found that our brains are wired to be distracted.2 This quality served us well when alertness to the approach of a dangerous animal was critical, but distractibility does not continue to serve us in our current day lives and jobs. To add to this, today’s relentless stream of external distractions exacerbates the situation, consistently eroding any ability to focus. We have a 24/7 news cycle, constant social media updates, and cell phones that make us accessible to others at all times. This year has added more challenges to staying focused while working, with more employees working from home (and children being educated virtually).
The good news is that focus is a skill you can cultivate and improve, and your brain can learn to ignore distractions. While neuroscientists found that patterns of focus vary tremendously throughout the day and over the course of a work week, the first steps towards becoming more focused is understanding how and when the patterns vary. Recently Potential Project set out to create a way to do just that. They created an app to track a person’s focus and readiness for deep work throughout the day and then tested it with leading psychologists and organizational theorists from top business schools. They partnered with one of the largest professional services firms to put it to use and to see what a look inside the mind at work would reveal. Here are some of the key insights that surfaced:
- Over half of all employees and leaders who participated in the test admitted to a significant disruption in the flow of work due to excess mind wandering.
- When asked about the participants’ level of stress, only 20% said they are able to properly manage their stress levels during the work week.
- Younger people in more junior leadership roles were 26% less focused compared to more senior leaders. This supports other research that younger cohorts get pulled off task more often due to greater reliance on social media and other digital applications. Interestingly, even though these younger individuals are less focused, they are not more stressed. It is the more senior leaders and older individuals who tend to experience more stress.
- From Monday to Friday, people’s focus starts high at the start of the week. On Thursday morning, however, people’s ability to regulate both their focus and stress declines rapidly, with the biggest drop-off late Friday afternoon. That result is a bit of a counterintuitive finding as you would expect the end of the work week to bring less stress. Open feedback from users indicates that the reason for the end-of-the-week stress is something with which we are all too familiar: unfinished tasks and the pressure of having to work over the weekend.
So how do we stay focused? A few ways to beat the distractions and remain set on our work are:
Disengage From Distractions
For at-home workers struggling with distraction, a recent survey revealed that social media is the leading cause. Many people reported wasting up to two hours a day.3 A good solution is to turn off notifications during working hours. Often, we are distracted by the sounds of updates, texts, calls coming in on our devices. By turning this off and scheduling “break times” to check for important notifications we can reduce distractions and focus on the things we need to complete for work. Dr. Duckworth suggests creating a situation where it is harder to be distracted verses attempting to use willpower or self-control. She suggests moving your phone out of the physical space of your work area in order to create a situation that makes it more difficult to be distracted. In her research on self-control in teenagers, data showed that the farther away students placed their phone while studying, the higher their grades. “If you’re trying to control your attention, don’t just try to do it with willpower,” she said. “You literally need to hack your physical space.
A recent article in The New York Times reported that having children at home when you are working remotely poses its own challenges to staying focused. Nir Eyal, the author of the book, “Indistractable,” recommends setting up clear signs so young children understand when not to interrupt. Mr. Eyal suggests finding the craziest hat you can find — he calls it his concentration crown. “When my daughter sees me wearing it, I don’t need to interrupt my call and explain that I’m busy, because she knows the hat means that daddy’s working and can’t be distracted,” he said.
The article went on to say that distractions can make it impossible to find your flow, that state when you are deeply engaged and merged with the object of your focus. “For parents with children at home, creating the environment in which flow can actually happen may mean clearly articulating boundaries of your time,” said Sasha Heinz, a developmental psychologist and life coach. “Instead of two parents half working and half taking care of the kids, you need to communicate with your partner and block off time for each of you when being distracted isn’t allowed.”
Get Proper Sleep
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, healthy adults should get a minimum of seven hours of sleep each night, with a recommended range of between seven to eight hours. They report that research revealed that the professionals surveyed averaged only six hours and 28 minutes. They stated that the effects of this sleep deficit were notable. Many survey respondents reported poorer workplace performance due to tiredness, with over half admitting to struggling to stay focused in meetings, taking longer to complete tasks, and finding it challenging to generate new ideas. Along with a lack of focus and diminished creative capacities, participants also indicated a reduced motivation to learn and be less able to manage competing demands.
Getting proper sleep helps to reduce some of the negative effects of work stress and lends to consistently higher focus. One study showed that more people got good sleep at the start of the week, but then the amount and quality of the sleep began to decline by Wednesday night. Those who managed to keep a healthy sleep routine throughout the week, especially on Thursday night, were 15% more focused and 12% better able to manage stress.4
Having a mindfulness practice contributes to more focus and less stress throughout the day and week. In a study conducted by The Potential Project5, people who frequently practice mindfulness were 22% more focused and 23% better able to manage their stress. The non-mindful employees often found themselves in the valley of distractibility in the middle of a workday, but not so for the more mindful colleagues. These individuals, as a result of a regular mind training practice, were able to pull themselves out of this midday dip and continue on towards peak performance.
Write Out A Schedule And Stick To It
We tend to stay on task and spend less time thinking about the things we want to get done when we have a specific schedule (with start and stop times for tasks). Instead of having a “to-do” list, create a schedule that includes break times, times to check and respond to emails, and times to work on specific projects. This allows you to focus in on the things you need to get done without letting your mind wander to other tasks.
2020 has been a challenge for even the most organized and focused people. By implementing a plan and sticking to it you will find that your mind will wonder less and your ability to focus will drastically improve.
- Baars, B. J. (2010). Spontaneous repetitive thoughts can be adaptive: Postscript on “mind wandering”. Psychological Bulletin, 136(2), 208–210. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018726
- Crout, P. (2020). Mind-wandering and the field of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 27(1-2), 7–33.