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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.

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 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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