Focus: Accomplish More by Doing Less

We all have more time available than we have things to do, right? We have plenty of time to focus on every task to make sure we’re doing the right thing and doing it well. And while we’re working on it, nothing else distracts us or demands our time; we just work on it until it’s done and nicely tied up in a bow and then we move on to the next big thing, right? O … if only that were true! If only our lives weren’t an endless loop of rat-races embedded into rat-races wrapped in a tsunami of emails, meetings, reminders, and calendars. Fortunately, there is a way to cut through the noise, get more accomplished and get your sanity back! It’s that 5 letter F-word of the 21st century called “Focus”.

Like they say: “Many a true word is spoken in jest”. I’m joking calling Focus the F-word but it’s actually more true than we’d like to admit.  In today’s corporate workplace ‘Focus’ is a very unpopular, “bad” word. Our leaders want to hear words or phrases like “multi-tasking”, “parallel work-streams”,  “juggling priorities” or the ever-popular “do more with less”.   When we start talking about “focus” and “prioritizing”, we’re flagged as non-productive, lazy, not being team players,  not understanding the competitive landscape of today. Ironically though, all the research shows that the way to accomplish more is to focus on one thing, do it well, complete it and only THEN move on to the next thing.  More on that later.

For today, let’s discuss two aspects of focus, namely Task Focus and Mental focus.

Task Focus:
  I define Task Focus as the discipline of concentrating all your energy on one task or project until completion before starting another.  It is the opposite of multitasking, which is the practice of doing multiple projects simultaneously in an effort to improve productivity. Ironically it has the exact opposite effect. Not only does in increase the time taken to complete the total workload, it also drastically increases risk and errors.

In a series of experiments done in 2001 by Joshua Rubinstein, Ph.D, Jeffrey Evans, Ph.D, and David Meyer, Ph.D in which young adults switched between different tasks, such as solving math problems or classifying geometric objects, they found that the overall output dropped by up to 40% when multitasking compared to focusing on one task at a time.

Actually, the word “multitasking” is actually a misnomer. The human brain cannot do two things at once. What we commonly call multitasking is simply “task switching”. We don’t actually do two things at once, we just jump between Task one and Task two. And here’s the catch. When faced with more complex tasks, the brain requires a ramp-down period leaving one task and a ramp-up period before being fully productive and engaged in the next task. In other words, there is a period of mental “overhead” between being fully productive on Task one and being fully productive in Task two. Depending on the amount of time between tasks, there is often extra time required to recall where you were last with the second task and to get your thinking completely up to speed with where you were before.  In addition to brain processing time, there is often also physical time spent switching from one project to another. You may have to get the other paperwork or materials out or search for the previous files on your computer or you may even have to physically go to another location.  These are all productivity overhead activities and are the very expensive cost of multitasking.

Mental Focus

Mental Focus: Mental focus is the discipline of being able to concentrate and control your thoughts to stay laser-focused on the task at hand as opposed to allowing yourself to get sidetracked by other distractions.

These distractions come in one of two forms:

External distractions:  These are events that occur outside ourselves that break our focus. Every day we are subject to more environmental distractions than ever before. We carry smartphones, tablets, laptops, smart watches, Bluetooth headphones; all with a variety of notifications, beeps, dings, and tunes constantly demanding our attention. Even our cars are getting smarter and smarter with more information packed into our dashboards than some of the original computers! We work in open work-spaces where distractions abound so we can “collaborate” … (but then ironically, we wear headphones so we can concentrate!) TV and advertising spend billions of dollars annually researching and implementing methods to get more and more of our attention.  We are truly living in the age of information overload. No wonder we crave constant stimulation from our data-rich environments.

Case in point: I recently broke down and bought an Apple Watch. Amazing piece of technology. I really love it so far. However, a couple of days ago I’m sitting here, deep in the zone while writing my book, when my watch taps me on the wrist, and with a loud ping reminds me … to breathe!  TO BREATHE! Seriously? I’m not making this up folks! We’re now interrupted by technology to tell us to breathe!  Well, needless to say,  I was so annoyed, I totally lost my train of thought, and had to regroup for a few minutes to get back into the flow.  On the upside, I didn’t die of oxygen starvation, so I guess I should be thankful that I get to live another day to finish the book!

Internal distractions:  If you think external distractions are the biggest enemy of focus, think again. When it comes to distractions, we are our own worst enemy. Our own minds generate exponentially more distractions than external factors.  There is a Buddhist term for our mind’s inability to stay focused for very long. They call it the Monkey Mind.  I just love that description. Being from Africa, I grew up between monkeys. (And no, I’m not referring to my friends and coworkers). If you’ve ever watched a monkey, they do not sit still for a second. They are always active, moving, exploring, searching, eating, playing and getting up to all sorts of mischief. They are quite fascinating to watch; you could get tired just watching them.  Such is the human mind.  If you’ve ever tried meditating, you totally understand this.  The mind is constantly active, processing input, recalling memories, solving problems, producing mental images, and processing interruptions. If you’ve never tried it, just try to sit still for two minutes and try to think about only one thing. Anything. Just try to keep focused on that thought and only that thought and notice how many times your mind wanders. Go ahead, just try it.

Mental focus is nothing more than learning to control the Monkey Mind. It is the practice of learning to keep the mind focused on one thought and bringing it back to the object of focus when it wanders off. This is the entire premise of Mindful Meditation. So let’s explore that for a second.

Mindfulness and Focus

Now before you start rolling your eyes thinking “O boy, here we go with the touchy, feely, spiritual, Hippie, mumbo-jumbo.” , let me assure you, I thought the same way before I started doing some research.  Yes, true, mindfulness originated as a Buddhist philosophy, but it has been researched and proven to be effective by Western science and psychology many times over.  So much so, that the US military started studying and applying these techniques helping soldiers in deployment sharpen their focus as well as reducing pre- and post-deployment stress.  And if it’s good enough for the Military where life and death are at stake, it’s good enough for me in my everyday life. If you’re interested in learning more about the topic, I recommend the book Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana.

So what is it exactly? The practice of Mindfulness is quite simply the ability to keep your mind focused on one (and only one) thing and bringing it back to that object of focus when it starts to wander. It is all about training your brain to recognize and control mind wandering – the mortal enemy of focus. What you choose to focus on doesn’t matter. It could be anything.  For example.  There is something called Mindful eating. Mindful eating is quite simply exercising your focus muscles by concentrating on what you’re eating and keeping the mind focused on that and only that. It means concentrating on the taste of the food, the texture, the color, the aroma and the flavor and bringing the mind back to that the moment your mind starts to wander to making a  shopping list, the upcoming football game, what the  kids did yesterday or whatever else the Monkey Mind decides to get into.

How Mindfulness improves focus.

  1. The mind is like a muscle. You can train it to become stronger. The more you train it, the stronger it becomes. Mindfulness is the “bench-press machine” that builds your “focus muscles”.  It strengthens your discipline of being able to control your thoughts.  And the better you can control your thoughts, the better you can concentrate when that important presentation is being delivered by that somewhat boring presenter. Your trained mind will be able to stay on topic, thus taking in more of the information, retaining more over the long-term, and voila, you now have an edge over your colleague who was reviewing his weekend plans in his mind while pretending to listen.
  2. Mindfulness increases awareness. Try this experiment. For one day, try to be fully aware of every time you are distracted from the topic you should be focused on.  Whether those are physical distractions or mental distractions, it doesn’t matter.  If you are talking to someone on an important topic and your mind starts to wander, take notice. If you’re interrupted by someone, take notice. If you’re in full concentration and your watch tells you to breathe, make a note. Just be “mindful” of distractions and “focus opportunities” for a full day. Trust me, you will be shocked.  And hopefully, this gives you enough incentive to put in the work to get better at reducing those distractions, getting more focused and getting better results in everything you do.

7 Tips for improved focus:

Mental focus

  • Actively and consciously manage physical distractions. When you know you have to focus, turn off technology distractions. Unless you have a serious problem not remembering to breathe, mute your smartwatch! Set up your environment to minimize external distractions.
  • Make it a priority to train the mind-wandering out of your brain using Mindfulness. Practice fully focusing your thoughts on one topic for 12 minutes every day.
  • Find ways to increase interest in the topic at hand. The brain focuses best when it’s interested and not bored. Find ways to add interest and reduce boredom in tasks. For example, when listening to a presentation, play this game. Try to find at least 3 ways that the information in this topic applies to or can benefit you. By making it about you, your mind will automatically be more engaged.
  • As much as possible, schedule times requiring heavy focus to coincide with the times of your highest energy levels. Mental focus requires a lot of physical energy. If, for example, your energy levels are at their highest in the morning, make sure you schedule the tasks requiring the most focus during that time.

Task focus

  • Wherever possible plan your work to complete one task or project before switching to the next. If not possible, work on each task in bigger time-chunks to reduce the amount of “overhead” due to task switching.
  • Set outcome rather than output goals. In other words rather than have a goal to work for an hour on this task, resolve to accomplish a certain deliverable. This is effective because 1) You will have a greater sense of accomplishment by having delivered something significant and checking it off your list and 2) you will more than likely automatically work in bigger chunks of time to get the deliverable completed.
  • Just say No. Steve Jobs, the famous founder of Apple said it really well. He said this: “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on.  But that’s not what it means at all.  It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done, as the things we have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

Expect resistance, but expect results

We have been culturally conditioned to glorify multitasking, so taking the high (focused) road less traveled will certainly meet with some resistance. Most people will not understand what you’re doing or why. However, results speak volumes and results change people’s minds. So stick with it and once you start demonstrating how you’re accomplishing more by doing less, those same people will come asking you how you’re doing this.  Then, just point them to this article!

Let me know how it goes.  I’d love to hear from you; whether you found this helpful and if you’ve tried it, how it’s working for you.


2 Comments on “Focus: Accomplish More by Doing Less

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