The secret to productivity isn’t getting more things done; it’s getting the right things done. It sounds simple, but the problem is that office workers are interrupted, or self-interrupt, about every three minutes, according to a study from the University of California, Irvine, as reported in the Wall Street Journal. These distractions get in the way and derail your intentions.
“Research has shown that our minds are wandering 46.9% of the time,” says Rasmus Hougaard, coauthor of One Second Ahead: Enhance Your Performance at Work With Mindfulness. “It’s not hugely surprising that the World Health Organization predicts work-related stress, burnout, and depression to be among the world’s most prevalent diseases by 2020.”
Unfortunately, part of the problem is that our brains aren’t built for today’s world, says Hougaard. “We still have a brain well suited for a hunter life, where work had a singular focus,” he says. “Our brain is not designed for the kind of work we now do, especially in offices. The default for our brain is to want to do all of it at the same time, and we aren’t naturally able to cope with that. From a neurological point of view, we need an upgrade.”
Another reason our brains like to wander is that it receives a reward each time it “accomplishes” a new task. Researchers from Harvard University found that multitasking provides a dopamine injection to the brain. Dopamine is a naturally produced neurotransmitter that is directly linked to addiction, and when it’s released, it provides a sense of gratification and enjoyment.
“Even small insignificant things like checking email give your brain a dopamine release,” says Hougaard. “Multitasking trains the brain to welcome distractions and all of the inefficiencies it creates. Shifting back and forth between tasks often feels exciting, even though it’s physically draining and stressful.”
Boosting productivity and focus requires working against the brain’s natural tendencies. “You have to override the brain wanting to do more at a time, especially the small, insignificant things,” says Hougaard.
This is done through mindfulness training, which involves two rules.
1. Focus on what you choose. The first rule is to recognize that the overwhelming majority of distractions are irrelevant and can be set aside in the moment, says Hougaard. In fact, almost all distractions can be let go, and by consciously choosing where to focus your attention, you avoid becoming a victim of distraction.
“Mindfulness training is the ability to notice distractions without getting distracted by them,” he says. “When a distraction arises, you see it and can let it go.”
Mindfulness helps you focus on long-term goals versus short-term gratification, says Hougaard. “You can mindfully discern in the moment what is important and what is urgent,” he says. “What is important is often not urgent.”
2. Choose distractions mindfully. The next rule is to be strategic about when you will handle distractions, because at some point, you’re going to have to answer the emails or talk to the coworker who needs to ask a question. The key is to recognize that you are in control of distractions and not the other way around.
You have three options when it comes to a distraction, says Hougaard:
- Let it go completely
- Deal with it at a specific time in the future
- Fully turn your attention to it
“You do only the right things in the right moment,” he says. “If suddenly your boss comes in the door, you recognize that this distraction is more important than what you’re doing now, and you make the conscious choice to shift your focus.”
By following these two rules, you’ll strengthen your brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that gives you the ability to steer at will, focus on the tasks at hand, and gain intentional control over “digital weapons of mass distraction,” says Hougaard.
Mindfulness training helps us overcome action addiction by helping maintain priorities. “Most of us have action addition; it’s that dopamine craving,” says Hougaard. “We’re spinning our wheels with insignificant things. You run fast without achieving anything. It’s so widespread, and it’s the main threat to mental effectiveness and productivity.”
With practice, you’ll improve your ability to focus for longer periods of time, and part of it is due to our brain’s makeup. Mindfulness training increases the level of serotonin in our brain, a chemical that balances out the negative effect of dopamine. “Serotonin is the antidote, and it makes it easier for us to refrain from things we crave, and gives us better impulse control,” says Hougaard.