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Why focus is the key to productivity in the attention economy 

Sophia Wichtowska
2020-04-14

Before the outbreak of COVID-19, productivity was the holy grail for employees and businesses. Everyone wanted to do more, in less time, and achieve optimal results.  

Now, for many companies, the focus is on survival. Those who are still able to work are doing so from home and may find themselves with a lot more time on their hands. There is time to reflect and to consider whether continually striving to achieve more is the best approach. While aiming high is crucial, it is equally important to maintain a balanced mindset. 

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One of the best ways to improve productivity sustainably is to improve focus on the task at hand. Mastering attention can quickly improve both the quality and quantity of work produced.

Why is focus a problem? 

In the modern workplace, the ability to hold attention on a task is becoming increasingly challenging. Author, Mark Manson, explains that we now live in an ‘attention economy.’ With endless knowledge now available at the click of a button, our attention is of high value to advertisers, companies, and organizations. 

While technology connects us to friends, family, and colleagues across the world, instant messaging is also making it difficult to remain focused.  

Unlike a computer, the brain is incapable of running too many complex tasks at once. It is impossible to chat to your colleagues and focus on work at the same time. Mental overload at work can also seriously affect productivity, wellbeing, and safety

Deep work 

26th president of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt, is said to have worked at the same time in the same place every day. He would work ignoring all other distractions that came his way. 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 the 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.” 

Granted, Roosevelt lived in a world where fewer distractions were competing for his attention, but with discipline, it is possible to train your mind. 

Top tips for maintaining focus at work 

1. Improve the process, not the outcome

When trying to improve productivity, many people focus on the outcome rather than the process. 

For example, you might set yourself the goal of responding to more emails in a certain amount of time. 

While this strategy creates a sense of urgency, it is outcome-based and, therefore, limited. Perhaps you are wasting time sifting through fifty junk emails every time you check your inbox. This part of the process needs to be streamlined if you are to see real results. 

Focusing on the task at hand can make it easier to improve your processes, save time, and get more done with less. 

2. Be aware of what distracts you

Everyone is distracted by different things. It might be your thoughts, notifications, or particular people! You will know straight away what takes you away from your work. Finding a way to block out and manage these temptations isn’t easy, but the rewards will speak for themselves. 

Research also shows that every time your phone goes off, the distraction takes you away from the task. If possible, set aside specific times during the day to respond to emails and messages. 

3. Prioritise

Write a to-do list, but only for the day ahead. An endless list without any consideration for the time you have will not be useful. 

Try writing out what you aim to do for the day, and mark your top three priorities. If you manage to complete everything, you will have a greater sense of accomplishment, so make it achievable. Using a traditional to-do list can lead to procrastination and make you feel as though there is a vast, unmanageable mountain of work to do.

4. Use the Pomodoro technique to track your progress

This is a time management strategy developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The idea is to tackle a piece of work you need to get done in 25-minute intervals, followed by a short break.  

Why does it work? It fires up our reward circuits. If we promise ourselves a reward (or break) at the end of completing a section of work, we are extrinsically motivated to complete the task. This approach can help with getting started, particularly with tasks you are not intrinsically motivated to do.

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 can 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 practicing. 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. 

Take a look at our Go1 Optimising Productivity pathway. You'll find a wide range of courses to help you boost motivation and stay productive when working remotely.

Sophia is a freelance writer who specialises in thought leadership, opinion pieces and content creation for learning publications. Her work focuses on the latest research in learning theory and practice. She regularly contributes articles on workplace learning and personal development to the Go1 blog. You can connect with her on LinkedIn. 

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