Productivity Fortnight+1: Attention – Focus on This!

Week 2 of the Productivity series of posts. Today, I’m going to briefly look at focus.

Attention! Focus on This

focusStating the obvious, goals can only be achieved with focus. So, let’s quickly look at a couple of common battles in the productivity hack area. But before we go there, a bit about focus in general:

Our growing reliance on technology, social media and the internet has caused a recognisable shift in our ability to sustain focus. Our attention-spans are declining, and the result is less success at completing goals.

Without focus we also can not obtain that state of flow which I discussed in yesterday’s posts, and we are losing our functional memory systems.

Here’s a video on what is happening to our brains. I guess I should say – try to focus on it.

Task-Focus Versus Goal-Focus

poster-illus02-taskvsgoalAccording to some research studies the key to success in larger projects is the ability to flip our focus between tasks and goals. In other words, not allowing ourselves to be bogged down in too many tasks, and keeping an eye on the higher level goals we are striving towards.

Goal focus = the bigger picture, the ultimate goal.
Task focus = thinking about the immediate action before you.

In his kindle book,  ‘S.M.A.R.T. Goals Made Simple – 10 Steps to master Your Personal and Career Goals‘,  S.J. Scott diffentiates between two types of goals – outcome vs performance goals, or big overall goals vs the actions or tasks which get you there. Scott says –

“The point here is that when you know specific actions can lead to a positive result, it’s often better to focus on the routine instead of the arbitrary goal”.

The problem is that you can’t be both task-focused and goal-focused at the same time, but each is essential.

Research suggests that task-focused thinking is essential when working on the difficult parts of a project, or when you’re not performing as well as you expected. Focusing on a small independent task allows us to overcome failure and compensate for it later on. If you are focusing on the bigger picture during these hurdles, the failure seems much bigger than it may be. So that task focus – at the right time,is beneficial.

Where a task is super easy or mundane, it helps to maintain motivation by switching back to the ultimate goal – why do we need to do this boring task, what’s the objective?

In this case, Goal-focus lets us remember that, and also form a sense of progress towards that big picture. The same focus helps where you are almost at the end of a project, like a sprint runner, the end goal gives further energy to push harder and faster on that final few meters. Flipping back to a higher look at the bigger goals – like, finishing a book – retains our motivation (provided it’s a goal we are personally passionate about).

Whilst we have a plethora of task or to do lists available to us – in paper and digital forms – these often don’t have an area where you can jot down the actual big goal all the sub-tasks are aiming for. Focusing back onto that goal – for motivation and review sake, is made slightly more difficult than it should be.

So saying that about the goal focus – many productivity systems advice us in ways to maintain motivation in actual task doing also – by keeping the tasks to a sensible small size so that we can achieve them quickly. Progression equals motivation.

Multi-Tasking Versus One-at-a-Time

mind_fullNot long ago, multi-tasking was all the rage. In fact, the term was often used proudly by one gender (mine!) to differentiate some superiority with quotes that “women are great multitaskers, while men aren’t”. Gender-stereotyping be gone, but there are many areas in life (like, say, grocery shopping with two toddlers, and planning a dinner party, while also planning out what to pack for holiday, and keeping Little Jimmy from swiping the sweets at the tills) where multi-tasking has its place. I also maintain that a good multitasker – and they do exist – can succeed at more than one project or task at a time.

However, for the sake of productivity in an office format, many research projects have found that more success can be achieved by focusing on one task at a time, rather than having several tasks on the go, and juggling between them.

In December 2013’s edition of Success Magazine, Gary Keller who authored ‘The ONE Thing, Surprisingly Simple Truths behind Extraordinary Results‘ is quoted as saying –

“Multi-tasking is a lie…If you want to be ordinary do all 20. If you want to be extraordinary, do one thing well.”

In this case, multi-tasking is the death of focus. It’s also been found to boost stress and ill-health. Singular task focus allows the mind more success.

 Reading Assignment No 4 – Further Reading

Productivity Fortnight 6

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