Recently I was at a client meeting and on the way back to the office, I was listening to Tubridy (don’t judge me! I like him and the Late Late as well) but the topic was the introduction to songs. In today’s music world, the average introduction to a song is 5 seconds before the singer comes in but back in the 1980s the intro to a song was 23 seconds and in the 70s it was around the 35-50 seconds mark. The reason that the intro to songs is now 5 seconds is that our attention needs to be grasped instantly; we quickly move on if we are not engaged. Imagine if the intro to Aha’s song Take On Me was only 5 seconds instead of 39 seconds…U2’S Where the Streets Have No Name (1 minute 23 seconds) was only 5 seconds…Guns n Roses-Sweet Child of mine (1 minute 45 seconds) was only 5 seconds. imagine, God forbid, that you never heard those great intros. Well if they were produced in today’s world- you more than likely you wouldn’t hear it! I shudder to think of that.
You are probably wondering where I am going with this but listening to Mr. Tubridy got me thinking about how short our attention span is and why is that? Our ability to focus at work is declining. Why? Because in a pressured, always-on, information overloaded and distracted work reality, our attention comes under siege and there is a direct link between attention and results. If we want to be successful at work, we need to choose what we pay attention to and what we don’t. But research shows that managing attention can be difficult. Our mind has a natural tendency to wander; half of our waking hours on average. From a work context, this means we are only focused on the people we are with or the task at hand half of the time, which limits our ability to achieve results. So how can you work on this? I certainly don’t have all the answers but here are some suggestions.
Write out a to-do list
In today’s world, when an email pops up, a call comes through, a colleague wants to have a talk/ask a question, seek your opinion on something, it can be very easy to lose your train of thought. Do you ever feel you are being pulled left, right and centre? And that you are half doing things (I certainly do at times, and it’s annoying. Well, let me correct that – I get more annoyed with myself!) Writing out a to-do list is an easy but effective way of completing tasks – so try to stick to it. Ask yourself, if a call comes through, do you have to take it there and then? (Would it not be better to complete the task in hand and return the call later on?) Of course, there will always be times when you will have to drop the task, i.e. if your boss wants a quick word, or that call from a client who you have been chasing all week comes through. But writing it out – and this is the important piece – writing a checklist will help you complete tasks. Set realistic targets and goals and reasonable timelines.
Switch off email alerts and keep your phone on silent
I was reading an article recently that informed me that receiving a WhatsApp message and the sound from the phone creates the same adrenaline rush as when playing in a casino and the noise that is emanated from the machine. Now I thought to myself, is this stretching it a bit? But it is possible. I was sitting beside someone at a conference recently and every time his phone went off , he felt the need to check it. Now he may have been extremely busy but do we always feel the need to be ‘switched on’? The need to find out what is going on in a WhatsApp group can be very damaging and more pertinently so, when in work (and I will put my hands up, I have been guilty of it. On a Friday afternoon, will we/won’t we have a match tomorrow?) it can be destructive and is taking away our attention. Similarly, is there a real need to have email pop up alerts on? I am guilty of checking back in to my mail to find out if a certain candidate/client responded but having an email pop up alert can be extremely distracting. I purposefully switched mine off and I have found my level of work has dramatically increased – I just don’t get distracted as easily. Previously, I found myself clicking on the pop up email alert and then going completely off track. Is it easy to click on the alert? Yes. But is it easy to keep focused? Not always – and I’m certainly no angel. But do ask yourself what is so important that you need to get back to it within that minute, 10 minutes, half hour? Most of the time it can wait. Obviously, there will be exceptions – but set that 10-15 minutes aside before/after lunch to check the mail instead of jumping in and out with the result of lost attention. You may say to yourself, sure I can multi-task! That, my friends, is a myth (my wife will disagree with me on that!) but there is no such thing as multi-tasking!
Go for a walk at lunch time – take time out
In this world, we are under pressure to respond, to complete tasks, to have strong project management skills, to always be ‘available’ – it can be really draining. By lunchtime, you may not feel you have the energy to walk – or indeed want to walk! But studies have shown that by going for a walk (even just 15 mins) can dramatically improve your attention on your return. Some people ‘feel’ that that they have to take a shorter lunch or indeed work through their lunch but that is damaging to your work and it’s not good for you both mentally and physically. Try if possible to switch off – and give yourself something to look forward to, e.g. a walk to the coffee shop, a walk in a park. You may think it’s cheesy but get in touch with nature! Trust me it helps. Personally, I love nothing more than putting my headphones on and going for a walk at lunch time and listening to Moncrieff on Newstalk- I find myself completely switching off for that half hour to 45 minutes or so. It’s great and I definitely feel re-energised by the time I get back to the office.
So keeping focused and maintaining attention can be difficult but it is possible and whilst it is not easy- it can be learnt. I read a quote one day which I thought was great: “The bad news is that time flies, the good news is that you’re the pilot”. So focus on what is important and if you ever hear the intro to A-ha’s Take On Me being cut to 5 seconds, you are well within your rights to make a complaint!