Why Focus Should Really Be the Next "Big Thing"

Avid multitaskers might disagree — but focus should really be the next "big thing". Over time, you may have determined that you were hopelessly unable to juggle tasks and complete them reasonably well. (Divided attention leaves me feeling frazzled and disorganized.) However, your lack of skill in the multitasking arena is not only expected — but possibly advantageous. After digesting what current research is relaying on the topic, it appears that the ability to multitask is more of an illusion, than a bona fide skill. Have you ever wondered who might really be approaching work in the most effective manner? Well, it appears that "paying attention" is still required.

In reality, we should be on a mission to break our multitasking obsession. (I believe that many of us feel obligated to multitask.) While we have the ability to switch between tasks — we do not have the ability to attend to all of them effectively. Recent studies have documented that performance can drop significantly when attempting more than one task, and this becomes more of a challenge as we age.

Research at Stanford has shown that heavy multitaskers have trouble mastering even the simplest of tasks. (In fact, multitaskers didn't do much of anything well.) When comparing the performance of two groups (light and heavy multitaskers), heavy multitaskers were at a clear disadvantage. They had difficulty ignoring irrelevant cues, performed lower on memory tasks and failed to switch between tasks efficiently. We may not be able to entirely eliminate the need to multitask — but ultimately, it appears that allowing time to focus will be good for you, your weary brain and possibly your career.

Some related work life applications to consider:

  • Our thoughts need to coalesce. Immersing yourself in an idea or task, can help you identify patterns and connections that may otherwise go unnoticed. You must devote a fair amount of time to a challenge — to gain a deeper level of understanding.
  • Do less. Yes, I said it — we should be doing fewer things of more value. Take stock of your activities during the course of the last week. What could be eliminated that might allow you to focus on the tasks and challenges that matter?
  • Control interruptions. Distractions are plentiful in office environments and can tempt us to multitask. However, if you are in “stop and start” mode all day — you'll likely find yourself repeating tasks and spinning your wheels. (It can take up to 25 minutes to re-focus.) Common occurrences such as phone calls and e-mails can negatively affect productivity. (How many times have you found yourself re-reading the first page of a report?) Allow time and place to focus your attention. If you must, hide — I am offering permission to do so.
  • Alternate with rest. Taking the time to pause, after a period of concentrated focus is recommended. If you feel your mind needs a break, try a walk or listening to music for 15 minutes or so. Give your mind time to slow down and digest all it has taken in.

Attempt to build periods of intense focus into your work week. Moreover, when you launch work on your next important project — apply the strategy and see what develops.

Do you feel that multitasking slows you down? Do you feel obligated to multitask? Share your thoughts.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist who specializes in workplace success strategies and organizational change. You can find more of her posts at The Office Blend and US News & World Report's On Careers blog.

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