Tactics For Improving Single Task Focus
I came across this White Paper recently. I would urge you to print it and talk to your family about it.
It’s entitled "Understanding the distracted brain WHY DRIVING WHILE USING HANDS-FREE CELL PHONES IS RISKY BEHAVIOR and was published in 2012 by the National Safety Council in the U.S.
You can read the paper here and among the many statistics it reports here are some of the most impressive.
- Every year since 1994 between 32,000 and 48,000 people were killed each year in road accidents in the U.S. That’s the equivalent of a 100 passenger jet crashing every day of the year.
- More than 2.2M injuries were suffered in 2010 alone.
- Driver distraction has joined drunk driving and speeding as the leading factors in fatal and serious injury crashes.
- NSC estimates that 21% of of all crashes involved talking on cell phones.
- Hands-free devices do not eliminate cognitive distraction.
- Elsewhere, the Association for Safe International Travel reports that road crashes are the leading cause of deaths world-wide for people aged 15-29.
- You are four times more likely to be involved in a crash if you use your phone while driving.
- Texting while driving is six times more likely to get you into an accident than drunk driving.
- The chances of a crash for any reason are 23 times higher when you text while driving.
Multi-Tasking Is A Myth
Our brains cannot multi-task. They can juggle tasks very rapidly, which makes us believe we are multi-tasking, but our brains cannot undertake two conscious tasks at the same time.
There is a measurable lag in reaction time each time we switch our attention. The more we switch, the more often our attention is somewhere else. In a driving situation such a delay can and does have fatal consequences.
Complex Tasks Require Your Full Attention
If you and I are walking along together and I ask you to do a complicated mathematical calculation in your head – it is quite likely that you will stop walking while you do the math.
Pat the top of your head while rubbing your stomach in a circular direction – difficult isn’t it?
How about listening to someone in a crowded bar while trying to eavesdrop on another conversation?
Or that moment when the lecturer’s gaze falls on you and asks for your opinion when you’d actually been thinking about what to eat for dinner?
Over the course of a day, too much task switching will deplete your brain’s energy store and you’ll end up potentially making really bad decisions.
Too much task-switching and the stress that goes with it will also shrink the grey matter in your pre-frontal cortex.
It makes sense to give the task you’re doing now your full attention. The question is how can we make this easier to do.
Here are five ways to avoid distractions and maintain your focus.
1 Install the LifeSaver App
Given the massive risk posed by distractions while driving you should consider installing the LifeSaver App on your phone. While you’re at it, make sure your children install on their phones too.
The app auto detects driving and will then block phone use when behind the wheel. There are additional functions too – such as the ability to automatically inform you that a loved one has arrived safely.
You can visit their website here where you’ll also be able to download the app. It’s completely free.
2 Get Into A Flow State
The focus that people undertaking complex tasks report when they are ‘in the zone' is referred to as a flow state.
A flow state is when you experience a total focus on a single task – and it is what enables us to achieve world-class performance.
However, we live in a distraction rich environment. Our phones are constantly buzzing, our in-boxes jangle or send us pop ups and other notifications.
If you want to achieve something difficult and if that task requires your focus to be undistracted, it makes sense to remove as many of these distractions as possible.
Here are some actions you can take.
- Put your phone on airplane mode.
- Disconnect from the internet for a designated period – there are apps that can do this for you.
- Close the door to your office if you have one.
- If you can’t close your door, wear headphones and use the Focus At Will app to serve you sounds or music that are designed to help you focus.
- If distracting thoughts keep jostling for attention, write them down in a notebook so you can look at them later.
3 Group Similar Tasks Together And Allocate Time Correctly
If you want a simple hack to improve your ability to single task productively – bunch similar kinds of activity together.
For example, rather than stepping in and out of emails each day, define two periods of fifteen minutes in the morning and afternoon when you will do emails.
Your productivity will increase markedly by doing this. This technique is sometimes called time-boxing or the Pomodoro technique.
The other hack I recommend is this. Have you ever found that if you are late for your first appointment, it is really hard to get back on schedule for the rest of the day?
To avoid this and the consequent pressure it creates, be really disciplined about building in buffer time between your appointments.
4 Give People Your Undivided Attention
If you are in a meeting and one of your colleagues is continually looking at their mobile phone what does that make you think?
When you do so you are being respectful to whoever you are talking with, and you will also make a positive lasting impression.
Leadership is a social process, so be present and give the people you are interacting with your undivided attention.
5 Come Up For Air Regularly – Take A Break And Recharge
Researchers studied individual parole decisions by judges. They compared judges, matching the decisions they made for criteria such as the type of crime committed, the sentence, the length of time served, the conduct of the applicant and so on.
What they found is shocking.
Your chances of getting parole decline over the course of the morning, reaching a low point just before lunch.
The same pattern is repeated after lunch. The reason this happens is because these are difficult decisions to make, and each decision uses up a little of the judge’s brain glucose.
The easier decision is to deny parole – there is no risk in that decision. As their brains tired, they became less likely to think something through and weigh all the evidence and made the easier choice.
If you want to achieve better quality decision-making over a number of hours, take regular breaks, stretch, walk around and make sure you keep yourself properly fuelled.
I find setting an hour timer on my laptop works for me when I’m doing a lot of desk work.
Remember too that Newton had to wait for an apple to fall on his head, and Archimedes for the bath to overflow for their breakthroughs to occur.
If you give your mind a rest, it will repay you with greater creativity, and clearer decision-making.
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- Understanding the distracted brain WHY DRIVING WHILE USING HANDS-FREE CELL PHONES IS RISKY BEHAVIOR, National Safety Council, White Paper, April 2012 – http://www.nsc.org/DistractedDrivingDocuments/Cognitive-Distraction-White-Paper.pdf
Association For Safe International Road Travel – http://asirt.org/initiatives/informing-road-users/road-safety-facts/road-crash-statistics