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The case against fighting to stay focused at work

What if the reason you can’t get anything done is because you are too focused?

The case against fighting to stay focused at work
[Photo: Tyler Franta/Unsplash]

How often do you find yourself in this situation: With a pressing deadline, you sit down at your desk and tell yourself you’re not going to get up until the task is finished. Focus, we assume, is what we need in order to be successful. But what if what we really need is to allow ourselves to be distracted?

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Dr. Srini Pillay, author of Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try: Unlocking the Power of the Unfocused Mind, says while we all need a little time to focus to complete tasks, we tend to put our heads down too much. “Too much focus can actually hurt us,” he says. Here’s why focusing too hard may actually be damaging your productivity.

Focus drains your energy

Do you notice that spending the whole day working on a project leaves you depleted at the end of the day? “If you spend too much time focusing, your brain starts to lose energy,” says Pillay. If you find that you’re going through the day exhausted and downing one coffee after another just to stay awake, you may have exhausted your brain’s capacity to focus.

Focus means you stop noticing other things

Being too focused on one task can cause you to become oblivious to other things going on around you. “An Wang, the founder of the word processor, was busy focusing on version 2 of his creation, and in the process missed a competitor, the PC,” says Pillay. Without being able to see what’s going on in the periphery, you can lose track of the bigger picture and may miss something big that’s coming up in the future.

Focus hinders creativity

Creativity requires a mashup of ideas. Focusing solely on one thought or idea too closely doesn’t leave any space for other thoughts to creep in and for creativity to happen.

So, if focus isn’t enough on its own for success, how can we activate the unfocused brain and use the wandering mind to its advantage? Pillay suggests three ways.

Three ways to take advantage of an unfocused brain

Constructively daydream. We all have moments where we allow our minds to wander, sometimes thinking about nothing in particular. Pillay says while allowing your brain to wander off-topic while you sit staring at your to-do list simply delays task completion, there is a form of daydreaming that can help you to be more productive. “Positive constructive daydreaming,” he says, occurs when you are engaged in doing a low-key activity, such as knitting or gardening, where you allow your mind to wander to a positive place. Daydreaming during a low-key activity, he says, can help you to feel more energized, productive, and creative.

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Find the right distractions. How many times do you find yourself turning to social media as an outlet for distraction? How about doodling? Pillay says distractions are allowed; however, they must be the right distractions. While scrolling through social media leads to procrastination and doesn’t truly give your mind a break, doodling, on the other hand, is actually a healthy distraction. Pillay says that scribbling activity that used to get you in trouble in grade school helps you to connect with your unconscious, allowing you to retain more information and improve your memory recall.

Recognize unconscious distractions. Unconscious distractions, such as worrying about paying your mortgage, or concerns about the health of a family member, may not always be top of mind, but are happening unconsciously. These thoughts can become unhealthy distractions, activating your brain’s fear center without you being aware of it.

Pillay argues it’s important to be aware of these distractions so that you can consciously set aside time to think about these concerns and let your brain come up with solutions to those unconscious fears, rather than having them appear at inopportune moments.

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About the author

Lisa Evans is a freelance writer from Toronto who covers topics related to mental and physical health. She strives to help readers make small changes to their daily habits that have a profound and lasting impact on their productivity and overall job satisfaction

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