Learning how to stay focused on your work is one of the fundamentals of productivity. Unfortunately, maintaining focus has become increasingly difficult in an age where a single email or phone call can force you to reassess your priorities for the day. Why is it though, that even when we close ourselves off to emails and unplug the phone, we get little done? The problem is that although we have minimized the external, physical distractions of email and phone calls, the number one enemy to productivity are our mental distractions: our doubts and our worries.
The problem with these mental distractions is that we’re usually unaware of them. Oftentimes we find ourselves at the end of the day wondering why we didn’t get anything done, despite the fact we had set aside the time to work. We may spend five hours at our desk, but most of this time is spent thinking about the all possible procedures for doing the work, thinking about how little progress we have made, and thinking about how we should get more done. In the end we spend 80 percent of our time thinking about work and only 20 percent working. The funny thing is that 100 percent of the time it certainly feels like work, and hard work at that.
One of the main reasons for these mental distractions is that we tend to look at projects as monstrosities that seem to have no beginning and no end. When we sit down to work at a project a great deal of our time and energy is spent ruminating about the next thing we should do. After ten minutes of thinking about it, we start working, but five minutes into the process we begin to doubt whether what we’re doing right now is the best use of our time. This doubt causes us to switch tasks.
Task-switching can really damage productivity because once you gear your brain to do one task and switch to another, it takes a while for it to get “warmed up” so that you can feel comfortable with the new task. Rumination and task-switching are the biggest enemies to productivity. Chances are that if you feel like you worked the whole day and still didn’t get anything done, most of your time was probably eaten up by these two time bandits.
Why We Succumb to Mental Distractions.
The principle of focusing on completion of a task one step at a time, although it can be difficult when we’re at work, is something that we do quite often. If we wanted to make mashed potatoes, for example, we’d briefly think about the steps we’d need to take and then we go about doing it. We spend little time task-switching because the steps are clear.
Steps to making mashed potatoes:
1. Buy potatoes.
2. Peel potatoes.
3. Boil potatoes.
4. Mash them.
5. Add, milk, butter, and other seasonings.
We make mashed potatoes one step at a time because it’s common sense. It’d be ridiculous if we went to the store to buy one potato, took the potato home to peel it and then put it in the pot to boil while we go back to the store to get another potato. It’d be a waste of time, energy and resources. And, to top it all off, your mashed potatoes probably wouldn’t come out very well.
Why is it then, that although we don’t spend much time ruminating and task-switching when making mashed potatoes, we spend an inordinate amount of time doing it at work? If we make bad mashed potatoes, the consequences are low, that’s why we spend little time task switching or ruminating while we’re doing it. If someone told you, however, that if you don’t make good mashed potatoes you can kiss your salary raise goodbye, the stakes get much higher.
Most likely we’ll spend a lot more time worrying if we’re making them properly. We’ll probably go back to the store to buy other ingredients because the potatoes we have right now don’t seem good enough. We’ll probably fret over every detail and wonder if we’re doing everything right. In the end, we’ll most likely succeed in making the mashed potatoes, but we’ll spend a lot more time and energy doing it.
The reason why many of us don’t work the way we make mashed potatoes is that we blow the negative consequences of a job poorly done out of proportion. We’ll tend to imagine the worst possible consequences should we not do the job well. We think that the boss might not like our report and we could get a demotion, maybe even fired. The problem with this is that our focus is directed toward these negative consequences rather than just doing the job well.
How to Minimize Mental Distractions.
Learning how to stay focused doesn’t happen overnight, but I’ve found these rules very helpful in overcoming rumination and task switching.
1. Do all your rumination and worrying about what you should do before you start working. Take a piece a paper and a pen if it helps and determine your priorities. Get a rough idea of each task to complete and decide which ones you should do first.
2. Once you start working, don’t second-guess yourself. Finish whatever task is at hand.
3. Don’t switch tasks. If you remember something that you have to do, make a note of it on a piece of paper, clear it from your mind, and go back whatever you were doing.
4. Catch yourself in the act of rumination and tell yourself: “I can worry about priorities and other tasks later. All attention must be devoted to what I’m doing right now.”
You’ll find that adopting the above habits will do much to minimize mental distractions. Not only will you get much more done, you’ll also free yourself from a lot of stress and worry.