6 Ways to Regain Your Attention Span

Last Updated May 9, 2011 8:51 AM EDT

Does it feel like there are too many little things nibbling at you to actually get any real work done? Just when we settle in to work on the Johnson project, Facebook needs updating, Instant Messenger goes off and there's that email from your partner in Dallas. How are we supposed to get any work done? We need to rebuild our attention spans.

Too many of us spend our time working like Dug, the dog from the movie "Up". We get distracted at odd moments (SQUIRREL!) and find it hard to focus. By becoming aware of our tendencies and setting support systems in place we can regain our focus.

Tony Schwartz, the author of The Way We're Working Isn't Working, has some ideas. In a recent Management Exchange blog post, he offers 6 tips for regaining the focus we once had.

  1. Let your values guide your behaviors Do you really not know what is most important. While it sounds trite, we need to focus on the things we know to be most valuable. If we thought about it for even a second, is updating our Facebook page really more important than doing a good job on the data for our team? Really?
  2. Slow down Paradoxically, the faster we move the less we often accomplish. Our brains are incapable of multi-tasking, instead we have to switch from one task to the next and each switch has ramp-up and cool-down time associated with it. By sticking with one task until it's complete (or there's an organic, natural place to take a break) and then moving to the next task we will get more done and at a higher quality of work.
  3. Build deliberate practices that become habits This one is going to hurt a bit. Many of us have to retrain our brains to stick with one thing at a time. Research shows that ritual and habit are the best ways to make sure we do something in a certain way. The problem is, it takes doing something over and over again until it becomes a habit. Start by blocking an hour (okay, half an hour if you start to get the shakes) in which the focus is the most important work you'll do that day. Don't check email, turn off the ringer on the phone. Just do what you need to do. If we did this every day for a couple of weeks, it would becomeour default way of working.
  4. Create "precommitments" to keep you on track This is a polite way of saying you need to burn your boats so you can't escape. If email is a distraction, turn off your internet connection while you're working on that memo. Don't freak out, it has an on switch as well. If we commit to eliminating possible distractions and nonproductive behaviors, not only will we be more focused on the work at hand, but they won't be there to tempt us at all.
  5. Share your commitments Most of us are really bad at keeping promises to ourselves,but pretty good about maintaining our commitments to others. By sharing your commitment to manage your time better, we'll be motivated to achieve those goals. We'll also get some help from those who work witg us. (If you ask your teammates to give you an hour in the morning before the IMs start flying, you may just get it). If everyone knows what everyone else is trying to achieve you can hold each other accountable.
  6. Start small Rome wasn't built in a day, and going cold-turkey with some of these distractions won't work very well either. As Schwartz points out, the attention part of our brain acts like a muscle. Try to make it do something it hasn't done in a while is likely to result in a serious mind-cramp. Still with practice and repetition, we can change our default settings.
For some it will take longer than others. Don't be afraid to ask for help and reach out to the team members who seem to be struggling with maintaining their focus as well. (SQUIRREL!).

Okay, for most of us it's still a work in progress.

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photo of Dug copyright Pixar 2009