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  • Heather Davis

The Ability to Focus & Ignore Distractions: Two Sides of the Same Success Coin

"The ability to focus attention on important things is a defining characteristic of intelligence." -Robert J. Shiller

Of all the ingredients of success, the skill of concentration and being able to focus our attention - while also shutting out distractions – are a couple of the most fundamental.

Focus is key to work quality, creativity and well-being

Science has confirmed the role that focused attention plays in the quality of our work.

The skill of being able to concentrate on a single task, without interruption for an established period of time is key to getting things done more quickly and accurately.

Focused periods fuel creativity and help with quality idea generation. They’ve also been found to contribute to lower stress levels, increased confidence and greater life satisfaction.

The enemy of focus: distraction

And like any good hero, focus too has its nemesis.

Our fast-paced digital society brings along the enemy: unrelenting distractions.

The average person has a difficult time ignoring the constant bombardment of non-stop notifications, texts and emails. Studies find that people check phones up to 150 times each day.

All of this, experts say, are killing attention spans. The ability to focus is on the decline.

Interruption science

When we are focused on a task, even short interruptions are not as benign as they appear.

Every interruption harms our focus and reduces effectiveness. Even one less than 3 seconds in length, interrupts thought processes and doubles our chances of making a mistake, according to researchers Altmann, Trafton & Hambrick (2014).

What begins as a minor distraction can quickly eat up minutes and then steal hours. Some of that wasted time, brain scientists say, is in how long it takes our brain to get back after focus-busting disruptions.

On average, it takes about 23 minutes to get back on track.

The cost of task-switching

Like multiple children all clamoring for attention, juggling tasks not only divides the brain-power we allot to any one of them, the act of switching itself comes at a cost.

This price is paid in the time it takes to acclimate to the new task at hand and how productive and accurate we are. Research by Rubinstein, Evans and Meyer (2001) found that the time it takes to switch tasks and ready our brain to handle the something new can usurp up to 40% of productive time.

They went on to note that depending on either the complexity of one task or the other or, the unfamiliarity of one task or the other, the results look worse still.

“Having multiple sources of technology at your fingertips and available at all times probably is almost a guarantee of a reduction in performance and productivity.”

– Dr. Matthew Cruger, neuropsychologist, The Child Mind Institute

Brain drag: attention residue

According to researcher and business professor Sophie Leroy, once a project we are working on is interrupted, in order to turn our attention to the new subject, we need to first disengage our brain from what we were working on.

What Leroy terms attention residue, is when our brain is stuck on the ideas of the old task, despite moving on to something new. The person moved on but their brain didn’t.

The lingering residue of what was interrupted continues to deplete valuable brainpower, burdening the brain and slowing functioning overall.

When other variables like time pressure are added, the switch from task to task effectively becomes harder and our performance is negatively affected. When interruptions involve urgent or important projects, any increased fear and anxiety pile on additional residue and brain drag.

Ready-to-resume plans reduce residue:

Quick, short note-taking of where you’re leaving off on a project, what’s left to do and ideas on how to pick it back up are invaluable in reducing the time it takes to get re-focused again.

Writing it down reduces residue as the brain, now unburdened, can focus on what’s newly in front of us.

“To do two things at once is to do neither.” - Publilius Syrus

The multi-tasking myth:

Multitasking is alluring. We all have a lot going on.

We think we’re multitasking when we attempt to do two or more things at once or a couple of things quickly, back-to-back. Bouncing between things keeps us stimulated.

Who doesn’t like the idea of doubling, even tripling up to get things done faster so we can move on with our day?

Except that it doesn’t work.

Studies have shown that despite how effective we may feel while doing two or more things at once, it’s been proven ineffective, over and over.