Nine ways to supercharge your focus in the workplace

This article is based on the webinar delivered by psychologist, author and CEO of Equilibria Leadership Consulting, Dr. Nicole Lipkin, which can be viewed here.

Are you someone who is easily distracted at work? According to business psychologist Dr. Nicole Lipkin, focus is often“a mystical concept”, and it can be an ongoing challenge to control how our time is spent in the workplace when we all too often allow distractions to take over.

“Whether it’s technological disruptions, something someone says, or the thoughts in our head… the impact of this professionally and personally can be quite deep,” Lipkin explains.

There is much research to show that focus is correlated with building professional power as it enhances our productivity and performance. This includes a study by Gloria Mark, at the University of California, Irvine, which revealed that if interrupted at work, it takes 20-25 minutes for employees to return their full focus to the original task in hand. She also discovered that on average, employees check their email 74 times a day. If external notifications are turned off, employees will self-interrupt instead to check email.

But the question remains, do we have any control over the factors that interrupt our focus on a daily basis? Lipkin’s exploration of the topic led to her to conclude that “focus is more about a commitment to practice, choice and control”. This starts with understanding the relationship our brain psychology has with distraction. By understanding our own biology, she believes we can counteract the underpinnings of distraction.

Lipkin highlights two important concepts that we need to understand when trying to unravel how our focus operates. The first she refers to as ‘inputs’, which are distractions. These include self-induced inputs, e.g. choosing to go for a walk, checking email or looking at social media. They also comprise ‘other-induced’ inputs,e.g. someone coming into your office or a phone ringing. The second concept is ‘mindset’ or ‘perception’. She believes we are less tolerant of ‘other-induced’ distractions because we perceive we don’t have control over them. On the other hand, we perceive we have control over the self-induced distractions.

Lipkin, however, is keen to challenge these views. She believes we can manage ‘other-induced’ inputs by creating boundaries and systems around the distractions. She also warns that we are often not in control of self-induced inputs as “most of us are addicted to distraction”. But these focus-zapping obstacles can be overcome. Lipkin shares nine steps to help us regain control over our focus, and ultimately our personal and professional power.

1. Change your mindset

Carol Dweck, psychologist and author of Mindset, spent her life researching the differences between ‘growth’ and ‘fixed’ mindsets.

A fixed mindset is believing that our intelligence, personality and character are static and inherent. Those with fixed mindsets will avoid risks and challenges that may result in failure, will stick tightly to what they know and will avoid feedback. They are unlikely to improve themselves. In contrast, a growth mindset believes that intelligence, personality and character can continuously develop. Growth mindsets desire continuous learning, are more willing to take on challenges and are comfortable with uncertainty and failing. They put effort into learning and welcome feedback.

We can choose to have a fixed or growth mindset when faced with various challenges, says Lipkin. But “to re-habituate towards focus, you need a growth mindset. You need to know that with practice and effort you will get there”. We can shift our mindset with regard to our ability to manage distractions and be more focused.

2. Know your own tendencies

Being consistently dedicated to self-awareness is a crucial skill to develop, argues Lipkin. Part of learning how to be focused is knowing what your tendencies are when it comes to being distracted. This will give you a base for the changes you’ll need to make.

She suggests self-examining yourself over several days. Note down what happens every time you find yourself distracted.

This includes taking note of:

  • Your impulse to self-distract (i.e. why you do it)
  • The frequencies of these impulses
  • The content of these impulses
  • Your mood when you prevent yourself from self-distracting
  • Your mood when you allow yourself to self-distract
  • Is there a difference depending on the time of day?
  • What happens when you’re bored?

3. Don’t challenge your willpower

“Willpower is a depletable resource,” says Lipkin. “We all start with a full cup and it depletes throughout the day.” Acts such as resisting temptations or filtering distractions, e.g. not checking Facebook or email, depletes your mental willpower. “But the good news is that behaviours that are routine or habit don’t deplete your willpower,” Lipkin explains. This means that when we continue to resist doing things we want to avoid, it will eventually become a habit we’ve developed. Good focus and productivity can become learned habits.

4. Get to know how your brain works

Learning how our brain functions helps us counteract distractions. Lipkin points out five biological forces to be aware of:

The dopamine loop

Using social media and technology such as smartphones have been found to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and pleasure-seeking, as we enjoy receiving text messages, posting, and gaining likes and responses.

A ‘dopamine loop’ is a continuous desire to keep searching for and gaining pleasure. In today’s technology-filled environment, these loops are created because it’s easy for us to get instant gratification for everything we search for, e.g. we find answers to questions instantly on the Internet, or contact our friends via text message and see them reply straight away.

This loop makes us want to pick up our phone every time it rings or beeps, says Lipkin. She claims “the effect is similar to an addiction. It feels good doing it and when you try to break it, it feels really bad.”

A learned habit

Like trained pets, we respond to cues and rewards. Over time, as they are reinforced, we develop habits. Lipkin believes we have developed habits of distraction because of similar cues and rewards. But she also points out that, while hard to undo, these habits are possible to break.

Brain associations

We may put our notifications on ‘silent’, but just the thought of our phone potentially buzzing with a message or Facebook ‘like’ will continue to distract you from the task at hand, says Lipkin. She warns that even if you’re disciplined enough to keep your checking at bay, the thought of knowing that something might be waiting for you, is enough of a distraction to make your performance suffer.

The power of the new

Researcher Gloria Mark discovered our brains have a bias towards new things. The appearance of a new email might attract us as much as a shiny new toy would attract a baby. This results in an ongoing battle between our desire for the rewards of staying focused and our brain’s tendency to want new things.

Pain and pleasure

In our ever-demanding and connected world, we have an expectation of 24/7 ‘reachability’. Therefore, not checking your phone can potentially cause anxiety, says Lipkin. As humans, we’ll do anything to minimise pain and maximise pleasure.This means that choosing to be distracted often feels better than choosing to be disciplined and set boundaries.

With self-awareness comes intelligent action, and while we can’t fight our biology, we can retrain it to work for us.

5. Be smart with your currency

“Focus is like currency,” says Lipkin.“Part of your job is to figure out where to spend it and where to be frugal.” She advises defining what your personal and professional goals are, and then running future activities (or goals, projects, tasks, etc.) through two simple questions:

  • Is this in service to my professional goals?
  • Is this in service to my personal goals?

If the answer is ‘yes’, it’s a good activity to focus on.

Once you know what you’re focusing on, carve out several timed ‘segments’ for yourself in a day, based on how long you’re likely to stay focused (research has shown most people can’t maintain focus for more than 90 minutes). Then set a goal for each ‘segment’, be disciplined with it and don’t self-interrupt, says Lipkin.

She also advises completing the larger, more demanding items on our to-do lists, at the beginning of each day. Attempt larger things when your willpower is at its highest. Do menial things when it is depleted.

6. Learn to be an expert break-taker

Breaks shouldn’t be spent doing activities that cause stress, says Lipkin. Instead we should allow ourselves to mentally recharge. This means avoiding checking email and opting for taking a walk, checking Facebook or talking to a friend. “Real breaks re-energise our ability to focus,” Lipkin explains.

7. Set boundaries

It takes practice and conditioning to manage your distractions and set boundaries. Lipkin suggests the following to guard against distraction:

  • In case of an emergency, ask people to call.
  • Agree a signal with colleagues for your availability, e.g. a green board for ‘available’, red for ‘no interruptions’.
  • Adjust settings on technology. Turn off beeps and buzzes.
  • Rethink the 24/7 mentality.You don’t always have to respond in the moment.
  • Set up a routine for habitual behaviours, e.g. schedule time to check emails.
  • Detox from technology, even for a day.

8. Do it for others

Just as second-hand smoking is bad for those around you, second-hand beeping and buzzing can have the same effect. Hearing a beep or a buzz from someone else’s phone or screen can still impact your productivity. Switch off sound alerts for the health of your workplace, too.

9. Re-frame

“If we frame what we need to do as ‘being disciplined’, then our brains interpret it as something we can’t do or have to limit. It’s a pain principal,” explains Lipkin. “But re-framing it as something we’re going to gain, versus lose, taps into our pleasure principal.” For example, instead of quitting smoking, we can re-frame our goal as gaining the ability to complete a 10k run.

Ultimately learning to focus well, so that we can enhance our personal and professional power, is reliant on our willingness to take control back.


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