Feel distracted? Falling behind? Chances are your instinct is to flip through the 20 tabs you have open–many of which have nothing to do with the task at hand–or grab your phone and start thumbing through notifications.
Your lack of focus isn’t likely to be a case of adult onset attention deficit disorder, according to ADD expert Dr. Ned Halloway. That’s a condition diagnosed in only about 5% of the population. Instead, professor Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine, who has studied distraction and its effects on productivity, argues that we can point the finger on the very technology that enables our work.
Observing American workers and timing their every move with a stopwatch, Mark and her colleagues noticed a pronounced shift in their attention over the course of a decade. In 2004, the switch occurred an average of every three minutes. In 2012, the screen flip happened in just one minute and 15 seconds. Two years later, workers’ focus on one item dwindled further to 59.5 seconds.
“When people are constantly interrupted, they develop a mode of working faster (and writing less) to compensate for the time they know they will lose by being interrupted. Yet working faster with interruptions has its cost: People in the interrupted conditions experienced a higher workload, more stress, higher frustration, more time pressure, and effort. So interrupted work may be done faster, but at a price.”
Part of that price is the lost time it takes to get back on track. An often-quoted study of Microsoft workers revealed that when they multitasked it took between 10-15 minutes to refocus on the work they were supposed to be completing.
How to pull back and get productive again? You want to tap the “flow” state, a theory made popular by American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi whose TED talk extolled flow’s happiness-inducing properties as well as its ability to make time fly–along with your work.
It’s tough to achieve a flow state without a strong sense of self-discipline. Thankfully, the very technology that is driving us to distraction can also be turned into a tool to tap flow and boost your personal productivity.
The first step is to understand what you’re really spending time doing. That can start even before you get to work by noticing how much time it takes you to get ready and out the door in the morning. Throughout the day, a tool such as RescueTime can help you chart the way you spend your day. From there, you’ll start to see patterns that can pinpoint the times you get distracted. Once you know, you can begin to make changes to break out of those unproductive cycles.
Video games have been proven to be one of the most rapid ways to get into a flow state. The reasons are many, not the least of which is the presence of a soundtrack that both soothes mind and spurs the action. Ambient music improves creativity, too. Barring a penchant for Pandora’s Classical for Work, if you are craving a continuous low-level rhythm to pair with your work, OC Remix could have your salve, whether it’s Street Fighter II for emails or Mario Kart for design tasks.
One of the easiest ways to stay on task and not get overwhelmed is to accurately visualize all the things that need to be completed on any given day. Thanks to Mark Twain, we know that putting the most challenging tasks up top helps us keep our mental energy up. But deadlines or other timing issues may have other projects take priority. To order everything appropriately, an app such as Google Keep helps with organization.
The Momentum extension on the Chrome browser can also be pressed into duty. Momentum allows you to jot down a to-do list in priority order and has a big space in the middle of the page for the task that requires the most focus that day. The bonus is that the message appears every time you open another tab, reminding you of what you should be working on instead of getting distracted.
Breaking up tasks into smaller chunks (think: 10-minute goals) makes the to-do list more manageable, but has the added benefit of providing a neurological boost. During the productive flow state, the brain is in a heightened state of electrical activity. But when we’re finished, the feel-good chemical serotonin bathes the brain with the satisfaction of completion. Repeating this every 10 or so minutes rewards the body with positive vibes, building the confidence required to move to more demanding work.
If you need a tool to nudge you towards making “done” a habit, an app such as Chains.cc can motivate you by formatting your tasks in a chain that grows longer as you complete them.