In the past year, I made conscious efforts to stay concentrated on one task at a time, since the chatter in my head started driving me insane. I was doing pretty well until I started a new position as a product manager at a rapidly growing company recently. Having to manage ten projects at different stages and paces requires me to constantly make decisions at a moment’s notice while ensuring things are moving forward smoothly. By the third week into my new job, the chatter came back.
I was making slides in my head while checking emails. In trying to get everything done, I got nothing done at the end. On top of that, there are constant interruptions from every angel. It took me a year to learn how to focus, and I am not ready to unlearn that. So, I am sharing lessons I’ve learned in enhancing my attention span in the past year. By sharing them, I am making you all hold me accountable for falling off the wagon. And hopefully, these lessons will help you as well.
1. Interrupt the interruptions
Do you know that, working in an office, people spend on average three minutes on a project before being interrupted or before switching? According a study done by Dr. Gloria Mark, Ph.D., associate professor at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, most interrupted work was resumed 23 minutes later. However, when you’re interrupted, you don’t immediately go back to the task you were doing before you were interrupted. Instead, you end up doing about two intervening tasks before you go back to your original task. No wonder I never get any one thing completely done! To battle interruptions, I tackled the problem from two sides – internally and externally.
2. “Manage Your Blackberry; Do Not Let It Manage You”
Internally, I had to stop thinking that being highly multi-tasking equals being efficient. According to Adam Gazzaley, MD/PhD, Assistant Professor of Neurology, Physiology, and Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, “We’re all novelty junkies”—and multitasking, especially the electric kind, is a great way to get a fix.” But evidence suggests that multitasking with unrelated activities (e.g. trying to make slides in my head while checking emails) can impair short-term memory and interfere with mental processing, especially in older adults (read Dr. Gazzaley’s study here). No wonder as I get older, the harder it is for me to multi-task. Perhaps we can learn from the pro. When Sir Richard Branson was asked how he dealt with the enormous amount of emails he gets every day in an Entrepreneur magazine interview, he had this advice:
“You must manage your Blackberry; do not let it manage you. Many executives check their smartphones throughout meetings and during off-hours. This is not good for concentration, and has a negative impact on decision making. Use it only in bursts: check emails for an hour or so and then put it away so you can focus on the task at hand. When you’re thinking about how to manage not just your own time, but all your employees’, the key is to enable everyone to stay focused.”
3. Keep An Interrupter Log
Externally, I devised a few analytical ways to battle against interruptions. Resources like Mindtools.com offer practical guides on all kinds of management skills. For time management, they have these 8 tips, some of which I have found useful:
- Keep An “Interrupters Log” for a week: Include information of the person who interrupts you, date, time and reasons for interruptions.
- Analyze and Conquer Interruptions: Separate the valid interruptions from the invalid ones. Deal with the urgent valid interruptions first. To figure out if an interruption is valid or not, ask if someone could have avoided interrupting you by waiting for a routine meeting? Or if they should have asked you about it at all? Then, schedule time in your day to deal with the valid ones in an decreasing order of urgency. Also, look at how much time it takes for you to deal with the urgent-valid interruptions and add this time to your calendar as “contingency time.”
- Prioritize your phone calls and don’t answer every single one of them.
- Catch your breath: Don’t get wrapped into the other person’s “rush.” Pause and let the “crisis” sit for an hour before taking action. Most of the time, the crisis gets sorted out on its own without your intervention.
- Learn to Say “No:” Don’t be afraid to say “no.” Do it in a sincere way with a short explanation. People usually get it.
- Schedule “Available” and “Unavailable” time: Let people know your “Available” and “Unavailable” time on a shared calendar, and the circumstances when your “unavailable” time can be interrupted.
- Invitation Only: Schedule “Invitation Only” regular check-in times for the individuals you talk to most often.
- Uncontrollable interruptions: For uncontrollable interruptions, try rescheduling for a more convenient time. If it does not work, set an amount of time (say, I have only 5 minutes) to deal with it.
4. Take Control of Your Attention
Aside from analytical tactics, I have found these six steps towards uni-tasking by Martin Boroson helpful to battle multitasking:
Stop: stop the interruption as soon as you realize it
Clear: give yourself a mental pause
Choose: ask yourself “What do you really want to accomplish?”
Imagine: visualize the joy of accomplishing the task
Affirm: tell yourself that “I really want to get it done right now”
Do: Do it
In closing, I will leave you with Bon Jovi’s Living On A Prayer. Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn or ask me questions about a specific area of my experience. So here you go. Until next post, stay focused.