Added to this, a ceaseless barrage of email, phone calls and text messages are forcing us to constantly switch tasks and split our attention. According to a McKinsey Global Institute study, modern employees spend 28 per cent of their work week simply checking emails.
Researchers at Harvard University have found that this constant flipping of our attention from one task to another (as often as 500 times per day) is dramatically lowering our productivity and increasing the amount of time it takes to complete projects. Similar research indicates that multitaskers make more mistakes and are up to 40 per cent slower than people who focus on just one task at a time. Further still, multitasking increases the stress hormone cortisol in our bodies, which is why constantly swapping tasks can leave us feeling mentally exhausted.
However, perhaps most startling research in this area comes from a study conducted by the University of London which found that operating in a state of distraction does more than just exhaust, overwhelm and slow us down – it actually makes us dumber! According to their findings, trying to focus on more than one task at a time has the cognitive impact of reducing our effective IQ.
Amazingly, you don’t even need to read an email in your inbox to be distracted by it. Even just knowing an email is there waiting to be read can reduce our effective IQ by ten points — essentially turning us into the mental equivalent of an eight-year-old. Added to this, the trouble with the constant flurry of email is that it often achieves very little. Leading Australian communication expert Chris Helder refers to this as ePong — the habit of bouncing emails back and forth, shifting our to-do list to someone else and never getting anything actually produced.
In order to counteract this constant assault of distractions and interruptions, here are 5 tips for achieving focus especially when working on detailed or creative tasks:
- Turn off new message notifications for email, text messages, LinkedIn and Facebook. If you implement this one strategy alone, it will change your work life
- Close your office door (if you have one) and make it clear you are not to be disturbed unless it’s a genuine emergency
- Switch your mobile phone off; resist your FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and remember that the world will not stop spinning if you are uncontactable for a period of time
- Set aside time in your schedule for intentional thinking. Intel’s 14 000-member software and services group recently piloted a program allowing employees to block out several hours a week for ‘heads down’ work. During these blocks of time, employees aren’t expected to respond to emails or attend meetings — and the results have been amazing. Within the first few months of the program, one employee developed a patent-worthy innovation during ‘heads down’ hours.
- Take control of your email. If you find yourself constantly hostage to your inbox, perhaps an email management tool such as SaneBox is for you. The beauty of SaneBox or similar programs such as Alto, Inky or Mailstrom is they put you back in charge of the frequency and flow of email communication. Alternatively, put some clear boundaries around your access to email throughout the day. Many of the most productive people I know have developed a habit of opening their email software for only 20 minutes, four times per day. Between these times, they switch on their ‘out of office’ notification advising when they’ll be checking their email next so people know when to expect a response.
Although avoiding distraction and workplace interruptions is more challenging today than ever before, doing so is vital in order to experience the flow-state of productivity and personal momentum. More than simply preserving our sanity and intelligence, focus is the key ingredient to effectiveness in any meaningful endeavour. In the words of celebrated American author Og Mandino, ‘It is those who concentrate on but one thing at a time who advance in this world.’
Michael McQueen is a 4-time bestselling author and multi award-winning business strategist. He has worked with many of the world’s best-known brands and is a regular commentator on TV and radio. Michael’s most recent book Momentum: How to Build it, Keep it, or Get it Back, is a must-read guide to achieving breakthrough growth, unstoppable vitality and sustained success.
It is available in all good bookstores and online at www.MichaelMcQueen.net