The “perpetual now” we described in the last blog triggers a nasty side-effect, what time-and-motion experts call “attention residue.” You shift your notice from one thing to another – you multitask – and the main task ultimately, inevitably suffers: Your brain remains partially (unconsciously) wrapped-up in the distraction, even after you return to the work at hand.
According to Linda Stone, a former Microsoft and Apple exec, the digital demands of the modern world cause a condition called “continued partial attention” (CPA), a state of “always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis.” It comes down to simple FOMO—another way of saying it makes us confuse the really important from the merely urgent.
And it comes with both short- and long-term costs. Increased stress. Less money. Fewer promotions. A general sense of failure, of being out of balance, out of control.
On the small scale, say you’re immersed in a video game that requires some strategy. You stop for a moment to take a call. It lasts only a minute. Studies show, when you return your attention back to the game, you’re significantly more likely to fail than had you maintained your single-minded focus.
This makes intuitive sense. But worse yet, in the real world, attention residue and CPA compound throughout the average workday, workweek, work year. It’s a wonder we can get any complex, cognitive task accomplished at all.
People who’ve mastered productive focus have conquered the long block work session, an essential part of what author Cal Newport calls “Deep Work,” “the activity of focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It describes, in other words, when you’re really locked into doing something hard with your mind.”
The F@W brand of Deep Work is a five-step process, which you can start today, right now:
1. Inventory your To Do list. Choose your highest payoff task. That’s the job you have to do that’s most important – not most urgent – to achieving your mission. Note: The most important thing you have to do might not be on your To Do list at all.
2. Carve out at least an hour – some say 70-90 minutes is perfect – and focus single-mindedly on that task to the exclusion of everything else. Don’t check your email. Don’t look at your SM feed. In fact, turn your phone off. Close your door. Let the people in your workplace know you cannot be disturbed during the block.
3. Sequester your brain inside headphones. The right kind of music – no lyrics, no sudden changes, no consciously jarring elements – engages the region of the brain responsible for attention span, predictive ability, and memory retention. In short—focus.
4. Batch your less-important tasks (responding to email, making calls) into a fixed-block of time—say, between 3-4 PM. Let everyone know – train them – that’s when they can expect to hear back from you. They’ll learn.
5. Start with smaller blocks of time. With training, you’ll manage longer and longer blocks, until you can choose any amount of time you want to concentrate fully.
And now for some final good news. Intense focus sessions leave a residue the same way distractions do. In other words, the more focused you are during given periods, the more your unconscious brain will continue to work on the problems occasioned by the task—even after the sessions have ended and you’ve moved on, consciously, to other stuff. Get tuned into focus at focusatwill.com.