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Published on April 8, 2021

How To Give An Undivided Attention To Be More Productive

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How To Give An Undivided Attention To Be More Productive

When was the last time you found yourself experiencing one of these eight characteristics while working on a project?

  • Complete concentration on a task
  • Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback
  • Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down)
  • Intrinsically rewarding experience
  • Effortless and ease
  • Balanced between challenge and skills
  • Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination
  • A feeling of control over the task

Let’s be honest: have you ever felt this way? Most people haven’t, probably because they’ve never been in a peak state of “flow” that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes in his research on attention and peak productivity.[1]

Your undivided attention doesn’t occur through wishful thinking. It must be earned, created, and consciously accomplished by structuring your environment to facilitate the sustained brainpower needed for proper focus and concentration.

Through his research in understanding the “flow state” of mind, Csikszentmihalyi realized that to accomplish a peak state of focus and concentration, one must be fully committed to the pursuit and positioned within a specific set of key parameters to create this heightened state of euphoria and bliss.

Sadly, very few of us learned about these simple techniques and learning objectives in school, primarily because schools don’t teach you how to learn. They merely teach you the content you need to know.

Like most things in life, learning isn’t uniformly accomplished across the human species in the same way. Some may learn better through audio while others prefer video. Some may choose to read where others may prioritize being hands-on. There isn’t a “right” or “wrong” way to learn information, but there may be “better” ways to facilitate learning by increasing our attention span and mental endurance.

To truly maximize your brain’s ability to focus on a task and provide undivided attention to a project, we need to create an optimal environment and schedule our day with the proper intentions for success.

1. Eliminate Distractions Once and for All

If this one were easy, then everyone would be doing it. Distractions are one of the easiest and more efficient ways to distract our focus and waste precious brainpower on tasks that yield little to no long-term benefits.

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Simple activities like scrolling through social media, endlessly checking emails throughout the day, and scanning over at your phone to see your latest text messages can be a surefire way to prolong a project, especially since it takes around 23 minutes and 15 seconds for our brain to return to the peak state of focus after an interruption.[2]

So, why do we do this to ourselves? Because we love the thrill of dopamine.

Every time you get a new text, see a new email, or find out that you received a new like on your LinkedIn post, dopamine floods your brain and lights up an area of your brain called the Nucleus Accumbens.[3]

The Nucleus Accumbens is an integral part of our reward system (along with the ventral tegmental area). It lights up like a Christmas tree whenever something exciting happens in our lives, regardless of whether we perceive or experience it. It’s also the circuitry responsible for the high felt while taking recreational drugs, with scientists noting that there very few differences in the reward pathways between all of these tasks.[4]

So, if getting an email in your inbox could amount to the equivalent hit of dopamine as doing a line of cocaine, why should you stop doing it? Because it’s killing your productivity (and potentially brain cells).

Distractions are a surefire way to make your day more complicated, and it doesn’t just stop there. They also use up coveted brainpower and energy resources, causing the brain to switch from task to task, which is an inefficient use of neural activity. Switching from a task requires the brain to refocus, which also entails new circuits to be used, different pathways to fire, and more energy exerted to start up the new task at hand.[5]

When Mihaly Csikszentmihaly was doing his research, he realized that the power of sustained focus and undivided attention was accomplished by repetition, frequency, and intensity. As the saying goes, the more you use it, the easier it gets.

Eliminating distractions must be the first step in the process because the brain thrives off simplicity and can function at a higher level when it doesn’t continuously change focus.

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2. Set It and Forget It – Schedule Your Day

Take a moment and think about that one thing you will never get back. And no, it’s not money, fame, or your ex.

It’s time.

Time is the most precious resource we have because regardless of your physical, social, or financial status, it’s the only constant we have that we cannot trade for. Time is of the essence, and sadly, most of us waste it on activities that provide short-term gains at the expense of long-term rewards.

To master our ability to focus and practice honing our skills for undivided attention, we must become masters of time management. And the best way to manage your time is to plan it out.

We should be scheduling out time for physical exercise, social media, checking email daily. The list could go on forever and usually does, especially when this schedule isn’t utilized. Keeping yourself honest will always be the best policy, so don’t forget to prioritize booking out time for hanging out with loved ones. This policy can be a very effective way to manage your most precious assets while recharging the batteries after a long day at work.

Even with scheduling, time management can become erratic and get away from us, which is why setting aside specific times for projects can be the ultimate time management hack to take your game to the next level.

The Pomodoro Technique, created by Francesco Cirillo, utilizes a simple formula for managing time by setting 25 minutes of designated space for performing one specific task at a time. This technique is simple yet highly effective and aligns with our current understanding of neuropsychology and how the brain processes information.

The old-school strategies of multitasking are outdated and unfounded in neuroscience as research continues to show that switching tasks is very time and energy-intense. It also depletes the brain’s energy reserves and slows down central processing within the prefrontal cortex—the brain region responsible for executive function, decision-making, and motivation.[6]

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As you continue to switch back and forth between tasks, the brain becomes fatigued and error-prone, which can further delay progress and increase your chances of having to redo your work. Some research even estimates that task switching via multitasking can increase our error rates by nearly 50%, causing our tasks to take twice as long to finish.[7]

So, the next time your coworker starts to brag about their ability to multitask at their desk, enjoy the comforting feeling that you’re more likely to get the next promotion than they are.

3. Prime Your Brain for Success

The saying is true: “If you don’t use it, you truly do lose it.” It’s is a classic philosophy in neuroscience, specifically speaking about forming habits, optimizing physical and mental performance, and understanding how the central nervous system works in tandem with the body to execute activities.

Eliminating distractions and setting a daily schedule are essential steps for having undivided attention—and success. Still, these tactics can’t be utilized to their highest capacity if you approach your work feeling foggy, tired, in pain, or unable to motivate yourself to get ready to work.

The brain isn’t binary and far more complex than it may appear, but some tried and true principles will always remain foundational for success.

For starters, the brain thrives off of physical movement and exercise.[8] The best way to energize the brain is through physical activity because exercise can vastly improve blood flow, oxygenation, and neural activity in the brain’s executive processing regions. Exercise can also significantly impact our mental and emotional health, providing significant advantages for our overall well-being and a sense of purpose.[9]

Good brains also require good fuel to survive, which is why diet, nutrition, and giving your body a chance to heal can be advantageous for those who choose to utilize it. You wouldn’t choose to put regular unleaded gasoline into a high-performance race car, so why would you expect poor food choices to give you high-performance outcomes?

Your food choices provide fuel for your brain and body. More importantly, they also feed the gut bacteria that break your food into energy sources to produce neurotransmitters and optimize your immune function.[10][11]

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These little bugs have taken on a lot of press over the last few decades as gut bacteria and altered gut microbiome composition have been implicated in nearly every neurodegenerative condition ranging from Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s, Multiple Sclerosis, and even cardiovascular disease.[12][13][14][15] You need to feed your body the proper nutrients to fuel your brain for success.

And lastly, you need to sleep like your life depends on it—because it does. There’s a reason we sleep nearly a third of our lives away. Sleep helps us recharge our internal battery and facilitates the consolidation of memories, allowing us to update our brain’s software and maximize our memory stores for enhanced learning and exploration of ideas.[16]

Sleep also accelerates our body’s healing processes, with new research uncovering vast increases in the brain’s movement of cerebrospinal fluid as a way to take out the trash accumulated in the brain throughout the day.[17]

Stressors Exist Where Systems Don’t

Knowing this information is great, but the application is where the magic happens. You need to create structured systems to elevate your standards and create your optimal work environment. Sadly, no one else can do this for you.

By owning your results and controlling what you can control, you will see your productivity skyrocket. And with undivided attention, you will see greater success levels, higher chances of advancing roles, and improved fulfillment in your work.

Being productive can be tedious, but anyone who has found success in their career will agree that most of their success resulted from the long hours of work where no one was watching. And always remember to keep your focus on things you can control.

More Tips on How to Focus

Featured photo credit: bruce mars via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Dr. Erik Reis

Peak-Performance Leadership Consultant

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Published on October 22, 2021

The Flowtime Technique: A Pomodoro Alternative

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The Flowtime Technique: A Pomodoro Alternative

Today, there are countless productivity techniques that claim to help you work at peak efficiency. Among them, few are more widely known and widely used than the Pomodoro Technique. It’s a time management system that suggests that you break down your work tasks into 25-minute chunks and take breaks in between them.

The idea revolves around the notion that most people begin to lose focus after 25 minutes of continuous work and will need a reset to remain productive. But there’s a problem with that idea: no two tasks are the same. And for that matter, neither are any two people! That means a one-size-fits-all productivity system can’t possibly be the best fit for everyone.

But there’s an alternative that provides more flexibility and allows you to customize it for your specific use cases. It’s called the Flowtime Technique, and here’s everything you need to know to use it and start getting more done.

What Is the Flowtime Technique?

The Flowtime Technique, while not as well-known as the Pomodoro Technique, has been around for some time. In many ways, it’s a direct descendent of Pomodoro. It’s the brainchild of Zoe Read-Bivens, and she thought it up as a means of dealing with some of the shortcomings she experienced while using the Pomodoro technique.[1]

She found that sticking to 25-minute work segments often interrupted her flow—the feeling of being immersed in a particular task—and ended up harming her productivity rather than enhancing it. To fix the problem, she sought to create a system that retained the beneficial aspects of the Pomodoro Technique while allowing her to get into a positive flow and stay there.

The Basics of the Flowtime Technique

To start using the Flowtime Technique, the first thing you’ll need to do is create a timesheet to help you manage your daily activities. You can do this with a spreadsheet or by hand, whichever you find most convenient. At the heading of your timesheet, include the following column headings:

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  • Task Name
  • Start Time
  • End Time
  • Interruptions
  • Work Time
  • Break Time

Your timesheet will be the primary way you track your daily tasks and establish a flow that works best for you. Once you have it set up, here’s how to use it:

1. Choose a Task

To get started, choose a task you wish to get done. It should be specific, and something you can reasonably complete in the amount of time you have. In other words, don’t choose a task like “paint my house.” Choose something like “paint the front door of my house.” If you select a task that’s too broad, you’ll have difficulty sticking with the work. So, try and break down what you’re doing into the smallest manageable pieces.

2. Begin Working on Your Task

The next step is to start working on your task. Begin by listing the task you’re going to work on in the appropriate field of your timesheet. Then, list the time you’re starting work. Once you’ve gotten started on your task, the only rule you must observe is that there is no multitasking allowed. This will help you to focus on what you need to get done and minimize any self-imposed distractions.

3. Work Until You Need a Break

You may then keep working on your listed task for as long as you like. If you feel yourself getting fatigued after 15 minutes, take a break. If you get into a productive groove, lose track of the time, and end up working for an hour straight, that’s fine, too.

The idea is to get to know your own patterns and work in segments that fit you best. If you don’t focus well on certain tasks, work on them for shorter durations. If you get absorbed in other types of tasks, maximize your output by working for as long as you feel capable of staying focused.

You’ll likely find that the longest period you’ll be able to sustain is around 90 minutes or so. This corresponds to your Ultradian Rhythm, which are the alternating periods of alertness and rest that our brains experience throughout the day.[2]

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There are plenty of case studies that demonstrate how taking regular breaks improves productivity. It’s one of the reasons that mandatory breaks are a part of the Pomodoro Technique. But there’s evidence that the less-structured Flowtime approach to breaks works just as well. One technology company that recently directed its employees to take breaks every hour as they saw fit saw productivity levels rise by 23%—with no mandate required.[3]

4. Take an Appropriate-Length Break

When you decide you need to take a break, go ahead and do so. Just make sure to write down your stop time on your timesheet in the right place. You can take a break that’s as long or short as you like, but don’t abuse the privilege. Otherwise, it won’t be long until your breaks eat up the majority of your time.

As a general rule of thumb, try taking a five-minute break for each 25-minute work period, and increase your break time proportionally for longer work periods. You should use a timer to make sure you get back to your task in the right amount of time. And when your break ends, don’t forget to record the time you’ve resumed work and list the length of the break you took.

5. Record Distractions as They Happen

While you’re working, there are always going to be times when you’ll get distracted. It may come in the form of a phone call, an urgent email, or even the urge to use the bathroom. When these things happen, record the occurrence in the interruption column on your timesheet. Do your best to keep distractions short, but don’t try and block them out.

The reason is that you’re unlikely to succeed and sometimes, the things that distract you will be a higher priority than what you’re working on. So, it’s important to deal with distractions as you see fit instead of trying to simply work through them.

6. Repeat Until Your Work Is Complete

All you have to do next is to repeat the steps above until the tasks you’re working on are complete. As you complete each task, be sure to record your final stop time. If you wish, you can calculate your total work time (and fill it in) when you finish a task, or you can do all of the math at once at the end of the day.

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All that matters is that you don’t leave any gaps in your time tracking. Your timesheets, once complete, will become an asset that improves your ability to create a work schedule that maximizes your daily output.

What to Do With Your Timesheets

Although the act of recording your work periods and break times will help you remain on-task each day, there’s another important reason you’re doing it. It’s that your timesheets will gradually begin to reveal to you how to craft an ideal daily schedule for yourself.

So, at the end of each week, take some time to compare your timesheets. You may see that certain patterns begin to emerge. For example, you might notice that your longest work periods typically occur before lunch or that there are specific parts of your day that tend to be filled with distractions. You can use this information to plan subsequent days more effectively.

In general, you’ll want to cluster your most important tasks at your most productive times. So, if you are reviewing detailed property records, for example, you can set aside time to do it when you know you’ll be able to focus without interruption.

Conversely, you should schedule less critical work at the times when you’re most likely to be interrupted while working. So if you need time to respond to emails or return phone calls, you’ll know just when to do it. This will not only make you more productive but will also eliminate mistakes in your work.

Key Similarities Between Flowtime and Pomodoro

If you’re familiar with how the Pomodoro Technique works, you may have noticed some similarities with the Flowtime Technique. As we’ve discussed earlier, this is intentional. The Flowtime Technique is specifically designed to retain three critical features of the Pomodoro Technique, which are:

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1. Precise Time Tracking

One of the reasons that the Pomodoro Technique is so effective for many people is that it creates a rigid system to facilitate time tracking. By having to split your work tasks into 25-minute segments, you become acutely aware of the tasks you have in front of you and how you’re using your time. That alone helps you to avoid wasting precious work time because you have to account for every minute. The Flowtime Technique provides this benefit, too.

2. Eliminating Multitasking

With the Pomodoro Technique, you have to choose a task to work on and use a 25-minute timer to measure each work period. This does an excellent job of keeping you on-task because you know from the moment you set the timer what you’re trying to accomplish, and you’re therefore not likely to stray onto another task.

Even though you don’t need to use a timer with the Flowtime Technique, the very act of writing down your task accomplishes the same task. Because you know you’ll be tracking your time spent working on a particular thing, you’ll tend to stick with your task until it’s complete or time for a break.

3. Facilitating Breaks

One of the biggest killers of productivity is exhaustion, and there’s plenty of data to prove that taking breaks is essential to maintaining peak work performance. That’s the real secret to the Pomodoro Technique’s successful reputation—it makes breaks mandatory and unavoidable.

The Flowtime Technique, by comparison, also insists you take breaks. It just doesn’t force them upon you until you’re ready to take one. In that way, some additional self-discipline is required to succeed using the Flowtime Technique. But if you can obey a timer, there’s no reason you can’t learn to obey the signals your body sends you when it needs a time out.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, you may find success using the Pomodoro Technique. There’s a reason it’s so popular, after all. But if you’ve been using it for some time and find yourself straining against its rigid structures, you’re not alone. So, consider giving the Flowtime Technique a try for at least a week or two. You may find it’s a much better fit for your work style and that you get even more done than you ever have before.

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Featured photo credit: Fakurian Design via unsplash.com

Reference

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