More and more, people are trying to work the way computers work.
We constantly multitask, connect dots, scan information, send and receive data; and occasionally we run too hot and burn out our processors.
Our brains aren’t designed to work like that – not day in and day out.
When do – much like computer processors – our brains start to slow down, allocating the minimum resources to any task and reserving mental energy for all the other tasks on the go (including some for the tasks that you don’t have on the go, but feel guilty about putting off).
Managers and leaders are paid to focus, to go deep, think critically and relate to people.
Instead, we are running around allocating bits and bites of focus to a zillion demands all day long. Linda Stone coined the phrase “continuous partial attention” to describe what has become an automatic and continuous state of working at a superficial level. Can you relate?
The quiet cost of working in a state of continuous partial attention is that we are training our brains to:
Think back to the computer you had 8 or 10 years ago. Remember what would happen when you opened too many windows? The thing would slow down to the point it was unusable.
Now, computers have multiple processors – essentially they have multiple brains – so that when we push them to run 5 applications and do 10 things at once they can keep up.
You aren’t likely to get a multi-brain upgrade any time soon, but you can upgrade your brain’s capacity to focus and go deep.
Research shows that the maximum length of time anyone can focus on anything is about 90 minutes. After that, your mind starts going for a walk.
Unfortunately, most of us have become so unaccustomed to focusing for 90 minutes that our minds wander off after 15 or 20 minutes.
Great work is being done by people who are consciously training up their mental focus by working in focused sprints.
Try this when you start to work on something important that needs your attention.
Step 1: Remove distractions.
Step 2: Identify your current capacity for mental focus.
Consciously note the time you start your project, then dig in.
When you start to get fidgety, or start to think about emails or other tasks, look up and check the time. That’s your current capacity for mental focus. (Caution: it might surprise you.)
But don’t worry too much about it. Knowing your current capacity for focus is like noting your weight when you start going to the gym. It’s just a number that will help you track progress as you stick with the training.
Step 3: Start sprint training.
When you have larger or more complex projects, don’t set yourself up for failure by expecting yourself to push through a two or three hour marathon. Break big projects up into multiple sprints.
Try 20 – 25 minute focused sprints to start. If your current capacity for mental focus is shorter than that A) you really need to sprint train and B) push yourself to stay in the sprint. The rewards will follow.
Step 4: Take breaks.
Once you have completed a sprint, take a 5 minute break. Do something – anything – with your mind / body that isn’t the thing you have been focused on. You might get up and make some tea. You might switch your email on and check it for 5 minutes or go talk to someone. (Need a reminder about why breaks matter?)
When you work in scheduled sprints and breaks, you train your mind to take a walk on your schedule. And you start to own and build your mental focus capacity.
Step 5: Push your limit.
As you get used to working in focused sprints, you’ll notice that the sprints become easier and more productive. At that point, add five or 10 minutes to the sprint. Once you hit the 40 minute mark, add five minutes to your break. If you can train yourself up to a 90 minute sprint, you should allow a 15 – 20 minute recovery break.
To support my focus capacity training, I use an app called Focus Booster. It’s a timer that times your sprints and breaks.
When I started using it, I would set the alarm to go off after 25 minutes. I’d sit down and try to stay focused until the alarm broke my concentration. I’ll admit that at first I was surprised to find my mind would wander before the alarm! But the more I worked in sprints, the easier it became to stay in the zone for longer.
I’m up to 45 minute sprints with 10 minute breaks. I’m about half way to what’s humanly possible, which means I still have room for 100% improvement to my mental focus capacity! It also means that I get solid chunks of total focus each day.
Now, I know we can only keep the meetings, emails and phone calls at bay for so long. But if you are getting to the end of each day feeling like you haven’t been able to focus on anything, accomplishing even one fully focused sprint a day will help you boost your focus, your output and your sense of satisfaction.