By Molly Rose Teuke
Productivity has become the holy grail of the modern workplace, and productivity tips are a dime a dozen. Most of them are centered around “time management,” yet managing time is seldom, if ever, the issue. Managing attention and energy is a much more effective way to increase our productivity. In this column, we’ll look at how to manage our attention, based on the wisdom of science. (We’ll tackle energy in an upcoming column.)
The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is critical to what neuroscientists call “executive function”— understanding, remembering, planning, decision making, self-control and other skills we usually take for granted. It’s where we pay conscious attention. Yet the PFC is only 4 to 5 percent of our total brain mass. It’s the newest in evolutionary terms, and the latest to develop as we grow to adulthood, which means it’s easily bullied by other, more primitive parts of the brain. Given its limitations, it makes sense to deploy its resources wisely in how we direct our attention.
In his 2015 book, “Two Awesome Hours: Science-based Strategies to Harness Your Best Time and Get Your Most Important Work Done,” psychologist and researcher Josh Davis suggests we stop operating on autopilot. How often do you finish one task and move on to the next thing on your desk without pausing to consider whether it’s the best use of your time and attention?
Davis calls these moments “decision points;” we all have many of them throughout each day. Without attending to those moments, we move through the day in a singularly nonstrategic fashion. Only when we stop to make a thoughtful choice about our next task can we maximize our personal productivity.
Because our brain’s ability to pay attention is limited, when we squander it on less mission-critical tasks, we have less capacity for important tasks that will make a difference in how productive we feel at that end of the day. Making a conscious decision about where we direct our attention can eliminate the “where-did-myday-go” frustration we too often feel at 5 o’clock.
Of course, setting priorities is also a function of our prefrontal cortex (since it’s about planning and decision-making), which means it also uses up valuable resources. Setting priorities the night before is effective because it means you’re not using the next morning’s resources and, assuming you haven’t spent your evening taxing your brain with work, your cognitive skills have had a chance to rebound enough to make those decisions.
ONE THING AT A TIME
Another important piece of managing attention is keeping it focused on a single task. Our culture applauds “multi-tasking,” but our brains are biologically incapable of multi-tasking—they’re not designed to process more than one cognitive task at a time. We can do something called background tasking, which is doing two things at once when one of them can be done effectively in the background. We can drive a car or make a pot of coffee (background tasks, because we’ve hard-wired how to do them) while also completing a more cognitively challenging task—grasping the point of a podcast or carrying on a conversation about strategic planning.
When we “multi-task,” we’re actually doing what scientists call task-switching. We switch our attention from one task to another. For most of us, it takes just a fraction of a second for that switch to occur, but over the course of a day, those fractions of a second add up. According to Dr. John Medina in “Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School,” when we interrupt ourselves as we carry out a task, we take 50 percent longer to accomplish it, and we make 50 percent more errors.
Here’s an exercise to demonstrate the cost of task multi-tasking:
Step 1: Write out the numbers 1 through 26, then, underneath them, write out the alphabet A through Z, so you have a letter under each number. Time yourself.
Step 2: Turn the paper over and (without looking at what you just did), interlace (alternate numbers and letters) the counting and alphabet. (1, write A under it; 2, write B under it; 3, C under it, etc.). Time that and compare.
Medina describes just what happens in our brains when we switch from task to task. Simply put, multiple brain functions have to shift patterns to shut down and start up. It not only takes more time than single-tasking, it creates a heavy cognitive load that tires out our brains more quickly, making us less effective at any task we subsequently undertake. Not a recipe for increased productivity.
In “Two Awesome Hours,” Davis highlights another aspect of managing our attention: the factors in our environment that invite distraction. Our brains are not designed to focus on a single stimulus, and that makes concentration difficult under the best of circumstances. When we add the clutter of a messy desk, or the temptations of multiple electronic devices and screens flashing at us, we significantly reduce our ability to focus and get anything done.
There’s a connection here to self-control, an important component of paying attention. In “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,” social psychologist Roy Baumeister describes research indicating that willpower and self-control suffer in any messy environment. When the clutter on your desk involves things demanding your attention—a note to return a phone call, a written reminder of future tasks—you suffer a double whammy.
The same can be said of clutter in our minds. Thanks to Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, we know that our brains pay more attention to unfinished business than to a completed task that we can check off our list. The Zeigarnik effect kicks in whenever we switch tasks: An unfinished task takes up valuable space in our limited working memory, leaving fewer cognitive resources for the new task. The result: Neither gets the benefit of our full cognitive power.
Managing how and where we devote our attention helps clear the working memory of extraneous thoughts, leaving us more muscle power for the task at hand. One way we can do that is to start and complete one task before moving on to another.
We all get 24 hours in a day. The same number as DaVinci and Einstein and every great thinker that ever lived. No matter how we manage them, we still get just 24 hours/1,440 minutes/86,400 seconds. It’s how thoughtfully we focus our attention on what we want to accomplish in those hours and minutes and seconds that distinguishes productive from unproductive.