Reset Your Attention: Moving from On to Off

by Todd Popham
Popham & Associates, LLC

Where does work stop and your life begin, and who is paying the cost of that blurred line?

Buzz! Ping! Latin Salsa ringtone! These are the competing forces of email, phone calls, Twitter, Facebook, text messages and more… all commanding you to immediately stop what you are doing. Your eyes wander from the Word document you are working on to “new message.” Do I sneak a quick peek? Someone must need me!

When I ask colleagues about their alert-driven workday, the typical answer is: “I need to stay connected.” But is staying tethered to breaking news really necessary? Is reducing your attention span to micro-moments really effective? Our attention spans are challenged constantly, and the causes are inflicted by others as well as ourselves. Technology enables us to access information instantly, and it’s a significant driver of inattention. The real truth is: our incredible brains simply cannot process this much information effectively.

Brain overload is real. A 2011 study revealed workers on a typical day take in 174 newspapers worth of information—five times what we did in 1986! All the information and switching between subjects can cause us to feel tired and stressed. We are no longer at our best, and our relationships pay the price.

So what about the pings? A 2014 survey found that working adults who checked their email just three times a day while keeping their mailboxes closed (and no alerts on) were less stressed. They did not have to switch between tasks… meaning less becomes more. The same survey found that 55 percent of workers reported checking their email after 11pm—and six percent accessed email while they or their spouse was in labor! Where does work stop and your life begin, and who is paying the cost of that blurred line?

My example comes from personal experience. In the past, I have not managed incoming information well. I would check work email constantly and engage in email ping pong, back and forth. Meanwhile, my important work and relationships were put to the side. Today, my email is worked in about one-hour segments: early morning, early afternoon and late afternoon. When email ping pong begins, I understand the need to pick up the phone and verbally engage toward a solution. This new process clears my mind for project work, phone calls and personal space. I have unplugged… and become more effective.

Here are three keys to effectively manage technology—and focus your attention on what matters most:

  1. Reset from compulsion to necessity. Compulsion is an irresistible urge to do something. For example, you are working on a big project and your mind is quickly distracted. Ask yourself: What is my top priority? Falling victim to compulsion often results in a substandard result and great personal costs, such as long hours and high stress.
  2. Alerts are a ball and chain. When you organize your life exclusively around phone, text and email alerts, you are transferring control of your life to others. While alerts may appear to be your friend, they are often a foe. Better to leave your alerts off than to hear constant pings and know you are ignoring messages. Boundaries are a good thing, and the message sender expects and deserves a thoughtful response.
  3. Segment your day. To be more effective, I encourage you to segment your day. For example, check your social media sites at a certain time of the day. Project work requires sustained attention: block it out on your calendar. Email? Work it several times a day. Finally, don’t underestimate the need for personal recovery time. After a workout we need rest—and the same applies to your brain. Get up, get away and get recharged.

We all remember our early experiences with parents, teachers and others telling us to “pay attention.” These orders were from others who were in control, and our distractions years ago pale in comparison to what they are today. Reset your attention span by focusing on what is necessary, protecting your boundaries and controlling your day. Turn off… to turn on what is most important. iBi

Todd Popham is President and CEO of Popham & Associates, LLC, which provides coaching, small business consulting and leadership training. For more information, visit pophamassociates.com.

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