Productivity Requires Harnessing Focus

This is the tenth post in a series on productivity1. The articles are based on content from a workshop I led at The Makers Summit.


In the last post in this series, I discussed the necessity of removing distractions. Here’s an excerpt2:

Whether it’s an email notification or a habit of checking Twitter in the middle of a hard task that taxes your mind, each time we entertain a distraction it guts our productivity in a way that’s hard to perceive experientially. Quite literally, hours of focused work can slip away from us and we don’t notice (except for not feeling productive or wishing we’d accomplished more).

Removing distractions, though, is only half of the equation. Removing distractions creates a context for productivity, but beyond that, the act doesn’t produce anything. In other words, when the distractions are gone, it’s time to get to work.

Multi-tasking is a myth

One of the focus-killers I observe most often is multi-tasking. Multi-tasking is the idea that we can do more than one thing at once. What makes this concept difficult relative to productivity is that our experience in life proves that in many situations, we *can* perform more than one activity at the same time. From actions as simple as walking and talking on the phone to more complex performances like preparing the ingredients of a complicated meal ‘simultaneously’.

The idea, though, doesn’t translate to all areas of life. Some multi-tasking can be fatal, as The New Atlantis points out3:

Numerous studies have shown the sometimes-fatal danger of using cell phones and other electronic devices while driving, for example, and several states have now made that particular form of multitasking illegal.

The same article discusses the rise of concern about multi-tasking in our work:

In the business world, where concerns about time-management are perennial, warnings about workplace distractions spawned by a multitasking culture are on the rise. In 2005, the BBC reported on a research study, funded by Hewlett-Packard and conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London, that found, “Workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.”

While our ability to maintain awareness of many things happening at once is incredible, our brains weren’t designed to engage in multiple complex tasks at one time. In fact, the term “multi-tasking” originated in the field of computer science4.

The term “multitasking” originated in the computer engineering industry.It refers to the ability of a computer to apparently process several tasks, or computer jobs, concurrently.

The first paragraph of the same article on Wikipidia issues a warning about the consequences of multi-tasking:

Multitasking can result in time wasted due to human context switching and apparently causing more errors due to insufficient attention.

Our brains aren’t computers, but modern thinking about productivity has mistakenly applied the paradigm of raw computing power to humans.

In 2010, Rolf Dobelli wrote an article about the harmful effect of news on our ability to think critically5. He illustrates the point about multi-tasking by highlighting the mental consequences of exposure to hyperlinks in online text that we read.

Online news has an even worse impact. In a 2001 study two scholars in Canada showed that comprehension declines as the number of hyperlinks in a document increases. Why? Because whenever a link appears, your brain has to at least make the choice not to click, which in itself is distracting. Your brain isn’t good at comprehending what it is currently reading *and* deciding what to read next.

If I step back I know this practically—I can’t dig into budgeting *and* write an important email at the same time. If I’m “working on both of them,” what’s happening in reality is that I’m switching back and forth between the two (what the Wikipedia article calls ‘context switching’). For many of us, the danger can actually be the false sense of velocity created by the act of switching. When we move from back and forth from one task to the other, we can give ourselves the sensation that we’re getting a lot done. What’s actually happening is that we’re working *on* or giving our attention to different tasks, all the while severely diminishing our ability to complete any of them.

Ironically, the idea of multi-tasking brings us back to the idea of distractions. In attempting to work on many things at once, you’ve essentially created distractions, only they’re disguised as important things you need to work on.

A singular focus

Productivity requires harnessing your focus. Here, concepts borrowed from science are helpful. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines focus as6:

a point at which rays (as of light, heat, or sound) converge

Focus is a single point of convergence. Practically, that means giving our full attention to one thing at a time—which our brains *were* designed to do.

Oftentimes, narrowing our focus to one thing, especially in the absence of distraction, is really hard. The idea that you’re moving forward requires much less effort than actually putting one foot in front of the other, so many of us subconsciously prefer a false sensation to actually being productive.

Our ability to focus is a muscle that we need to work out. In our world of infinite distraction, we’ll default to atrophy if we don’t.


Methodologies for harnessing focus

Here are a few things I do to help harness my focus.

Using a timer

One of the simplest ways to harness focus is to set clear boundaries of what you are going to work on within a defined period of time. For example, “I’m going to work only on budgeting for the next 20 minutes.” I’ve found that using a timer of some sort provides an external context for the work you are doing—you know that the timer is running and that you’re ‘not allowed’ to work on anything else. There are number of ‘time-boxing’ systems out there (like the Pomodoro technique), but I’ve found that everyone is different and experimenting on your own, considering the specific type of work you do, works really well.

Sprint and rest

Focusing intently on a single task for a period of time can be mentally exhausting. Just like our bodies can’t perform intense physical activity without rest, our minds can’t maintain intense states of focus without needeng a break. Again, I’ve found experimenting relative to the way you work and the work you are doing is the best place to start. Over time, I’ve found that breaks seem longer than they actually are, even if I use the time to check email, social media or make a phone call.

Grouping like tasks

As we discussed above, there are consequences for context switching—moving from one task to a completely different one. When we switch, it takes time an energy for our brain to re-calibrate its focus. It follows that grouping like tasks together, even if they’re not the same, helps our brain maintain focus. For example, if you’re working on a budget or finances, it makes sense to work on other number-based tasks because your mind is already thinking through that lense. If you’re writing, line up other writing tasks for when you’re done. As I plan out my day, I try to schedule blocks of time where I’m going to work on similar things to minimize the effects of context switching.


1. You can read the story behind this blog series and find links to all of the resources here.2. You can read the last post in this series, Productivity Requires Removing Distractions, here.3. You can read more about the detrimental effects of multi-tasking in The New Atlantic’s article, The Myth of Multitasking, here.4. You can read more about the origins of multi-tasking on Wikipedia.5. You can read Rolf Dobelli’s article about news and thinking on his website (PDF).6. You can read the full definition of ‘focus’ on Merriam-Webster’s website.

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