Stay Focused

Experts share tips for better concentration.

“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention,” wrote Herbert Simon, Nobel Prize laureate in economics, in 1977. This seems to ring especially true today: Everywhere you look, you see people huddled over their smartphones as Facebook notifications and email alerts from the office pop up. Companies like Daimler AG recognized early on that digital advancements didn’t necessarily ease the burden on employees, and that it was time to develop new and flexible options for teams. But what can we ourselves do to stem the flood of tasks and news? First, we have to determine where the problem lies.

We spend too much time on “shallow work”

Cal Newport, a computer scientist and graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a leading mind in the new school of concentration. His book Deep Work became an international bestseller. “For many employees, too many emails, conferences and phone calls cause stress. They feel as though they fall short on key tasks because they’re forced to finish them when they get the time,” he says. Newport sees what most of us accomplish at the office as anything but focused. He describes it succinctly as “shallow work,” the mere processing of bureaucratic tasks or communication via email and smartphone. Shallow work allows employees to demonstrate a certain degree of productivity without having achieved quality performance. “If the brain is the machine of the services and technology industry, then we can’t continuously interrupt it. We have to set it in motion,” he says.

Tranquility is the key to success

What Newport calls “deep work” describes a form of highly concentrated action, a rush of productivity that can only be tapped by blocking out all possible distractions. It is a rejection of the eight-hour workday in open-plan offices, of the excessive meeting culture and of the expectation that employees should always be reachable. He says that spending time offline these days is of immense value if you can use it to concentrate on an important problem. He adds that being able to master the art of deep work is a key skill, especially in an age in which we are drowning in information.

We are concentrating on the wrong things

The average day for Cal Newport is hardly one we would wish for ourselves: He only recently began using a smartphone, and he refuses to use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And when he gives talks about why social media is superfluous, his message isn’t always greeted with approval. But his approach is worth considering. The computer scientist tells us that new technical gadgets do not necessarily equate to progress. Many people are stressed because they concentrate on the wrong things. He agrees with the psychologist Winifred Gallagher when he tells us that our perceptions are influenced by our focus: “What we think and feel is the sum of the objects of our concentration.” Spending the entire day in meetings or answering emails means we are focusing on negative things, such as problems with colleagues, deadlines or other superficial matters. Those who work in such a focused way that they lose track of time and space, however, will know the sense of satisfaction one gets from deep work.

Only highly focused work brings satisfaction

Motivational psychologists described such a flow back in the 1970s: the state of losing oneself in one’s work, the sense of focus practised by writers, painters and high-performing athletes. For Cal Newport, the conditions that writers create for themselves are ideal: an isolated area, paring down technology to the essentials. But how can this be carried over to the office? Industrial psychologists think that getting rid of digital distractions may be a good start. After all, it’s a question of control – of who decides what to focus on and when to focus on it. But according to the psychologist Daniel Goleman, this isn’t always as easy as it sounds. “Just like with treatment for addiction, the first step for many people is to learn how not to be distracted by digital stimuli,” he writes in his book Focus.

The mental gym

Goleman says that focus is like a muscle that we have to stretch, and that the best brain training is to take breaks to practise awareness and refocus. He goes on to list numerous neurobiological studies that show how people who have meditated for many years were able to strengthen certain links in the brain that promote concentration – for example, how they were able to more quickly deactivate the parts of their brain that cause distraction and to make better use of their prefrontal cortex, which controls our will to concentrate. “In the mental gym, as in any fitness training, the specifics of practice make all the difference,” Goleman writes. “It’s all a matter of how much you practise.”

Making use of the “quiet hour”

As little as 60 minutes of focused work without interruptions is enough to improve work quality immensely. This is what Cornelius König, professor for industrial and organizational psychology at Saarland University, discovered in a study of managers. König calls this making use of the “quiet hour.” The conditions are simple: Turn off your smartphone and internet, go to a quiet place and focus on the most important item on your to-do list. With a bit of practice, you will develop a flow – and it is in this moment that you will become a happy “deep worker.”

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