Focus: We lack it, and it’s costing us

by Pop on November 16, 2010

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Our minds spend 46.9% of the time wandering.

That’s according to a new study by Harvard psychologists Dan Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth. The two developed an iPhone app that asked 2,250 volunteers at random intervals what they were doing, how happy they were, and whether they were thinking about the task at hand or something else that was pleasant, neutral or unpleasant.

Of the 22 activities that the app let them choose from—including walking, eating, and watching T.V.—the volunteers’ minds were not focused on their present tasks no less than 30% of the time for every activity but having sex. Not explained: Why these volunteers were using an iPhone while having sex and how you could tell the app that you’re focused on lovemaking when you are, in fact, responding to the app.

But I digress. “Mind wander” is a very real phenomenon that humans have tried to tame for centuries. Just look at the Buddhist tradition of intense focus through meditation. Sure, eventually you’re reaching for enlightenment, but it all starts with paying close attention to every breath.

I won’t spend too long on the benefits of focusing because they’re pretty intuitive. Focus gets things done. Lack of focus makes even simple tasks drag on for hours. So we know we want it, we just don’t know why we’re not able to maintain it. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Humans aren’t good multitaskers.

Think of what you pay attention to as you drive down the road. There are a multitude of potential distractions at hand. Maybe there’s a cute dog in the car one lane over. Your phone might alert you to a text message. You might have just passed a Little League game where it looked like the bases were loaded.

But, hopefully, you kept your attention on the road and the items that mattered like the car tapping its brakes in front of you and the stale green stoplight. That’s called “selective attention”. You can’t focus on everything. So you choose what to focus on. That’s a good thing.

What’s plaguing America is “divided attention”. That’s when you, indeed, look at the text message, take a picture of the dog, and crane your neck to see the kid swing the bat.

In a 2001 study, University of Michigan researchers asked sets of volunteers to either do a certain task repeatedly, such as adding numbers, or alternate between tasks, such as adding numbers once then multiplying numbers next.

The ones who alternated between tasks both performed the tasks more slowly and made more mistakes. Every time we switch between areas of focus, it seems, we have a re-adjustment period. Multitask, and you’re constantly readjusting, which makes you not so great at anything.

The study’s results have been repeated in a number of other settings. Microsoft researchers, for example, found that it took 15 minutes, on average, to return to serious, work-related tasks after responding to incoming e-mail or instant message.

Separate studies have found that the “Millenial” generation is no better at multitasking than older people. It’s not a problem of “learning” to multitask, it’s simply a neurological bottleneck that we all have to deal with.

Focus on process, not outcomes.

Sure, you need an outcome that you actually want, like getting a promotion or finishing a project. But don’t let your mind wander to all the possibilities of completing a set of tasks, when the real hurdle is the process you have to plow through to get there.

These can translate even to mundane things. For example, I want to leave the country on vacation in a few weeks. For about a month now, I’ve been thinking about all the possible places I could go. It’s less expensive to fly to destinations in the northern hemisphere this time of year, but the weather is nice down south. I could have an adventure vacation—like floating down the Amazon river—or a cultural vacation—opera in Prague?—etc.

What it took me until last we to do was actually decide what week I’m going. Next, I need to decide where I’m going. Then I need to book a plane ticket and hotel. Arrange for a visa, if necessary, etc. The infinite realm of possibilities sucked away my ability to actually get anything done.

In the same way, if you’re angling for a raise or promotion, you’re not going to get anywhere by looking constantly at what possible outcomes could arise from the request. You need a list of small, actionable steps to take now that will walk you slightly closer to making the request.

Give yourself a strong incentive to focus.

With no incentive to complete a task, you’re unlikely to complete it. The best incentives are internal—you want to get fit because you want a more energetic, healthier you. Less-good incentives are external—you want to complete the project because if you don’t, your boss will get angry.

For big goals, like succeeding at work, it’s critical that you have a genuine, innate passion for the task at hand. But when that’s not possible, setting up the incentive for yourself can be effective.

I, as I’ve written too many times, get penalized $100 when I miss blog posting days. It props me up when I feel too tired to write.

After writing the post linked above, I got lots of great comments about other little ways people have incentivized themselves to not giving up in times of weakness.

One of my favorites was by someone who wanted to exercise regularly every morning. She meets one of her elderly neighbors outside her house and they walk together. If she doesn’t show up, the neighbor just waits there. It’s knowing that that person will be disappointed and possibly waste time that gets her moving.

An immediate and powerful incentive…nothing will get more focus out of you than that.


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Daniel Reeves November 16, 2010 at 10:12 pm

I do the random self-sampling trick on myself using an app my partner and I wrote. In fact, I use the data from that as the basis for commitment devices: I set up contracts whereby if I don’t get randomly sampled enough times doing real work then I forfeit a large amount of money.

I just wrote an article about this, in fact:

Jeff @ Sustainable Life Blog November 17, 2010 at 9:06 am

This is great stuff, Pop. I often find myself loading up my plate with tasks and attempting to get them all completed to a satisfactory level, only to find that as time passes, the ones that are more enjoyable get focused on while others fall to the wayside.
There are also some great tips for focus in here, and I think I may have finally decided that StickK will be worth signing up for. I’ve got something I really, really need to finish.


savvysavingbytes November 17, 2010 at 12:20 pm

For me the most interesting outcome of the study was that multi-tasking is not really effective, even for the young who practice it all the time.

As for the mind wandering, I see a good part of that as beneficial. It can lead to new ways of thinking and creating and solving problems.

Tommyji April 1, 2011 at 7:57 pm

“Mind wander” or lack of focus is not only real and phenomenon recognized since we first became self-aware, but has been the focus of rigorous scientific study.
A study based on the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program created by Kabat-Zinn, showed a strong relationship between meditation greater empathy, memory, happiness, as well as, increased focus. This study released in the Psychiatry Research, Neuroimaging journal, scanned meditators and a control group of non-meditators over a two week period.
Bottom line mindfulness meditation is a way to move away from “Mind wander.”
“Focus on process, not outcomes” is a process that I am particularly drawn to; its, be hear now or ‘its about the journey not the destination.’
The last line hits closest to home and I might have to try the $100 penalty motivator, sometimes I need a prop.

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