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How to Focus Your Attention and Improve Productivity with 7 Simple Tips

How to Focus Your Attention and Improve Productivity with 7 Simple Tips

Three Types of Attention

1. Focused Attention

2. Sustained Attention

3. Divided Attention

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.

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Attention is your brain’s ability to consciously choose what you will see at any given time.

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.

The 7 steps to improve your daily productivity

Productivity is a powerful experience. Think of those amazing days where you start and actually finish projects.

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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.

1. Slow down.

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.”

2. Think.

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.

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3. Be specific – narrow your goals.

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.

4. Sequence the necessary action steps to complete each project or task.

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.

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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.

5. Schedule an appropriate amount of time on your calendar to accomplish each task.

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.

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6. Remove the distractions, interruptions, chaos, and clutter.

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.

7. Go be productive.

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.

 Focus your full attention, talent, time, and energy and you will improve your productivity.

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Allyson Lewis

Allyson is a nationally acclaimed author, motivator, speaker, time management, productivity strategist, and executive coach.

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

More on Building Habits

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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