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How to maintain your focus in the ‘attention economy’

Sophia Wichtowska
2019-05-21

In 2019, the digital age is very much upon us, and the workplace is unrecognisable when compared with 20 years ago. From open plan co-working spaces, to being able to work from anywhere in the world, communication, expectations and the nature of work are rapidly changing.

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In this shifting landscape, the ability to hold your attention on a task is becoming ever more challenging. Being able to multitask was previously worn as a badge of honour, yet research tells us that the brain, unlike a computer, is incapable of running too many complex tasks at once. Mental overload at work can seriously affect productivity, wellbeing and safety (1).

While social media connects us to friends and family across the world, instant messaging is making it increasingly difficult to complete everyday tasks and to remain focused (2). US author and blogger, Mark Manson, explains that we now live in an ‘attention economy’ (3). With endless knowledge now available at the click of a button, our attention is of high value to advertisers, companies and organisations.

In this environment, it isn’t surprising that we struggle to hold our attention on certain activities. Becoming completely immersed in the task at hand, or finding your ‘flow’ is proven to increase contentment at work and improve the quality of work produced (4). This state becomes ever more difficult to attain with so many distractions competing for our attention.

What can you do to become more focused?

So, what can you do to improve your focus on tasks?

Setting up routines you can stick to is a good way to begin. 26th president of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt, is said to have worked at the same time, in the same place every day, and would work ignoring all other distractions that came his way. It was impossible to distract him. Although he would only spend a quarter of the average day working, he completed all of the tasks he needed to by using his time effectively.

In his 2016 book, Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success in a Distracted World, Georgetown professor and author, Cal Newport, explores Roosevelt’s ‘deep work’ ethic.  He defines deep work as:

“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” (5)

Granted, Roosevelt lived in a world where fewer distractions were competing for his attention, but with discipline it is possible to be more attentive. The key is to identify your main distractors and to be aware of them.  These might be thoughts, notifications or particular people! If you sit back and think, you will know straight away what distracts you. Finding a way to block out and manage these temptations is the is the more difficult step, but the rewards will speak for themselves.

Go1 top tips for maintaining focus at work

  1. Prioritise: Write a to-do list, but only for the day ahead.  An endless to-do list without any consideration for the time you have will not be effective.  If you can write out what you need to do that day, along with your top three priorities, you will have a greater sense of accomplishment when you reach the end of your list. Using a traditional to-do list can easily lead to procrastination and make you feel as though there is a huge, unmanageable mountain of work to do.
  2. Stick to daily routines: doing tasks and activities at the same time each day can help you to stay focused and make your day flow more smoothly.  When your brain knows what to expect, and when to expect it, it can focus on other processes, such as creativity and deep thinking.
  3. Manage expectations: Other people, no matter how well-intentioned, are a huge source of distraction, particularly in the workplace. If you are working to a deadline or really need to get started on a task, you need to be sure that your team members are aware of this.  Let them know when you are available for meetings and schedule them in, or arrange a time to catch up with them over coffee. You need to be responsible for communicating your needs to others and making yourself available to them only partially. This might also mean booking yourself into a private room if it is available, or taking yourself off to a quieter area, depending on your office layout.
  4. Manage notifications: research shows that every time your phone goes off, you are distracted by it and taken away from the task you are focusing on. 6 Set aside specific times during the day to respond to emails and messages if possible.
  5. Meditate: the brain is plastic, meaning that at any point in life we can teach it new things or learn healthier habits.  Focus is a skill that we all have the capacity to develop, and meditation is a fantastic way to practice it. Meditation involves training the mind to focus on the breath, and this focus can translate to your daily life long after you stop practising (7). You will also be able to catch yourself when you are thinking about how cute your dog is or what you ate for breakfast, instead of writing up the report due at the end of the day.

  1. Rubinstein, J. S., Meyer, D. E. & Evans, J. E. (2001). Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27, 763-797.
  2. Vitak, J., Crouse, J., & LaRose, R. (2011). Personal Internet use at work: Understanding cyberslacking. Computers in Human Behavior, 27(5), 1751–1759.
  3. Davenport, T. H., & Beck, J. C. (2001). The attention economy: Understanding the new currency of business. Harvard Business Press.
  4. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2013). Flow: The psychology of happiness. Random House.
  5. Newport, C. (2016). Deep work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world. Hachette UK.
  6. Iqbal, S. T., & Horvitz, E. (2010, February). Notifications and awareness: a field study of alert usage and preferences. In Proceedings of the 2010 ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work (pp. 27-30). ACM.
  7. Wax, R. (2013). Sane new world: taming the mind. Hodder & Stoughton.
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