1. Focused attention is short-term by nature. Think about the last time you were thinking about an idea and someone unexpectedly knocked on your office door. You experienced focused attention just in that instant as your attention was drawn away from what you were working on, and you were forced to focus your attention on the knock at the door. Other examples are having your phone ring or sitting at a table and having a waiter drop a plate just behind you – these startling events are usually short-lived and can last as few as eight seconds.
2. Sustained attention is the attention of productivity, concentration, awareness, and meaningful focus. Sustained attention allows you to focus your full attention on one task without interruption or distraction. It requires complete concentration over sustained periods of time. Sustained attention is required to learn, to think, to create, to invent, to plan. Sustained attention not only requires focus but it requires the even more difficult ability to keep other distractions from pulling your thoughts away. As a writer, I will find myself in the middle of a project and look up and hours will have passed. This type of attention is often referred to “being in the zone” and it is in these divine moments of sustained attention you will find yourself wrapped up doing tasks that you love to do, utilizing the very best of your skills, challenging you to your limits. It is inside these moments of sustained attention that we experience fulfillment and joy and hope and we believe our life has meaning. When you are able to concentrate your full attention, your focus and your full energy – this is when you will dramatically improve your daily productivity.
3. The third type of attention is divided attention, often referred to as multi-tasking. Divided attention is so prevalent in America today that we eat in our cars as we drive to work, we answer emails on our computers as we listen in to staff conference calls, and we text as we sit at the dinner table. Divided attention is not really attention – it is actually “task-switching.” You are typing a report that is due in an hour and an email alert pops up on your computer. In the instant you saw the email pop on your screen, your mind shifted tasks from focusing your attention on the report to the email alert, and as you switch back to the task of writing the report, your mind has to reread the sentence or thought you were working on. Back and forth, switching from task to task, having to back up just a little bit during each switch – what did that email say? – where was I in the report? And, the end result is lower productivity and the release of stress hormones and adrenaline.
Just for a moment stop what you are doing and become aware of what is happening in this moment. Your brain is a spectacular decision maker – all on its own. When you stop even for a moment and pay attention you can tell what you are wearing, what you are sitting on, the temperature of the air around you, can you hear the hum of the air conditioner or the heater, the sound of the train in the distance, you can even feel the watch on your wrist.
Just for a moment think about the importance of your brain’s ability to filter out all of the unimportant data. Attention is the ability to remove the distraction, interruption, and chaos from your life and choose to improve your ability to lengthen your brain’s ability to hold sustained attention.
Productivity is a powerful experience. Think of those amazing days where you start and actually finish projects.
Today’s business world has taken the word productivity and replaced it with a sense of urgent busy-ness: taking a random to-do list and attempting to get as many check marks as possible.
Productivity comes from the word “produce,” often seen as an agricultural term meaning to bring forth a crop, to create something totally new, to plant seed and grow a crop over a specific season. Being truly productive takes time. To be productive used to mean to be attentive to something – as in “tending your crops.”
Improving your productivity will require you to increase your ability to focus your full attention on one thing at a time. Building up your sustained attention span simply requires practice. Begin by setting aside as little as seven minutes at a time to think about what you need to accomplish. Taking the time to think and create a daily written plan of action can make a life-changing impact on your ability to be truly productive.
The fewer choices you have to make each day, the greater your productivity will be. If one person has 10 goals to accomplish and another person has only one goal, the second person who has taken the time to clarify exactly what they want to accomplish is much more likely to accomplish their goal.
My friend Jason Womack says, “Allyson, if everything seems important, then nothing is really important.” Jason is right. By narrowing your focus you will increase your productivity.
This may very well be the best-kept secret regarding attention and the improvement of daily productivity. You cannot just place a time on your calendar or in your smart phone to work on a project.
Assume you have a budget review due on Friday and you have scheduled two hours on Thursday morning to complete that project. You wake up and look at your smart phone and you see a “label” naming an event on your calendar “10 am to 12 pm work on budget review.”
At 10 am you sit down at your desk and all you know is that you have a budget review due tomorrow. You can’t just sit down and “do a project.” You can only do one single activity at a time and those activities need to be sequenced in an order that allows you to end that block of time with a finished project.
You might think this could be left out, but there is a lot of “mental accounting” when we begin to allocate the hours in our day. You think a project will only take thirty minutes to finish, but it takes you thirty minutes to get your teammate off their conference call and into your office so you can finish the original thirty minute project.
Distractions, interruptions, chaos, and clutter simply increase the number of choices you have each day for what you can do with your time. When you are ready to improve your productivity – you have to prove it. Put your cell phone in a different room. Turn off the TV. Deal with the problems. And, clean up your office.
The final step now is to “do what you said you would do.” Go produce new ideas. Invent new inventions. Finish the goals you start. Be attentive. Tend to your tasks.
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