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How to Stay Focused in a World of Distractions

It’s a distracting world out there. In the overwhelm of our workday, it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to do it all at once. We’ve all been there—checking email while on a conference call or switching between writing a report and taking a incoming calls. However, multitasking isn’t an effective way to be productive.

Watch the video or listen to the podcast below to get some insights and ideas to bring more focus to the task at hand.

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Full Transcript

So it’s a distracting world out there. There’s a lot going on. Some call it a VUCA world, volatile, uncertain, chaotic, ambiguous. And in a VUCA world, being able to maintain your focus is really critical. So this talks about what it takes for you and for your employees to hold their focus about the stuff that matters.

So where would I start with this? Well, the first is let’s get real about multitasking and just how impossible it is. Now, I know everybody’s heard this and they go, “Yeah, yeah, multitasking. You can’t do it.” And then you secretly say to yourself, “But I can kind of do it because I kind of do it all the time and I seem to be doing okay.” But here’s the inside about multitasking: First of all, ironically, the people who multitask the most are the worst at multitasking. It’s one of the few things in the world, perhaps the only thing in the world, that the more you do it, the worse you get at it.

Secondly, it’s just shown scientifically to say it is far more efficient to do one thing and finish it then do the next thing, rather than constantly switching between different tasks. In part because it takes you so long to actually recover, re-engage and begin the next task. So let’s just get clear about this. Let’s see what you can do to eliminate multitasking and have the courage to do that, and not kid yourself that somehow you’re being “uber” productive by the whole multitasking thing. You’re not.

I’ll actually give you a bit of research to back this up. This is from a while ago, in the U.K. They had three groups doing a fairly complicated task, or at least, yeah, complicated task, and the first group got to do it without any interruptions at all. So they just got to focus on the task and complete it. And they had their IQ measured. The second group had to multitask their way through completion; they had to answer doorbells, check emails; there were all sorts of distractions that kept pulling them away from the task at hand. They had their IQ measured. And then there was a third group, which I’ll tell you about in just a second.

Now, when they compared the three IQs, you can probably guess, the group that did the best, single-focus. They actually, I think, were 10 points higher than the next group. The group that did the least well was the multitasking group. Their IQ was 6 points below the group in the middle.

So what was that group in the middle? What had they done? Well, they were all stoned. That’s right. They’d all gone out and had a spliff and they found that these people who were stoned actually were able to operate at a higher IQ level than the people who were multitasking. Now, to be clear, I’m not now suggesting that you change your corporate policy that everybody goes and kind of lights up in the parking lot over the lunch break. That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m just really trying to emphasize the fact that multitasking is a distraction and you’re kidding yourself if you think you’re being effective and efficient when you multitask.

The second thing I would say to you is this: If you want to not multitask, if you want to maintain your focus, stop relying on willpower to do that, but use your environment to make it easy for you. So when you sit down to do a task, how will you arrange your environment so that you are not distracted? What will you put away? What will you put in a drawer? What doors will you shut? How will you remove yourself from the pathway of people of people stopping in to talk to you, and hide yourself in a corner?

I remember reading Chip and Dan Heath when they were writing one of their books. They went out and bought a laptop that had no WiFi, so they couldn’t actually access the internet, so that they could stay focused on writing their books. It’s one of those just key insights about change and self-management that if you want to do things differently, if you’re trying to rely on your willpower, you’ll almost certainly fail. You need to align your environment so that it encourages you to behave the way that you want. If you want more focus, arrange your environment so that it is less distracting for you.

The third deal I’d offer up here is just to get clear around your great work and what your great work project is. When you’re connected to great work, the work that has more meaning, the work that has more impact, you got more of a drive to actually focus on the thing that matters, and that’s going to work. But I’m not going to linger on this because the truth is it doesn’t matter whether you’re doing great work or good work, you still need to be able to bring a focus to it.

And that brings me to my fourth and final point around here, which you’ve heard me say perhaps in other podcasts, which is the power of a mindfulness practice. That could be meditation; it could be something else. But there’s so much science now that says those people with a mindfulness practice are better able to focus, have high emotional intelligence, they like themselves more, they like other people more. It really is a silver-bullet practice. So if you want to build your focus muscle, a mindfulness practice, that’s 5 or 10 minutes every morning, get an app, there’s tons of them out there, download one that you like—will actually help bring a sense of focus.

You know, when we talk about great work we actually say there are three core attributes you need to do more great work. There’s focus, there’s courage and there’s resilience. Resilience is to keep going when things get tough. Courage is a willingness to start the great work. But focus, focus is the starting point. And if you can’t bring focus to the work that you do, you’re never going to truly flourish in this chaotic and complicated world.

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