Multitasking is the way to go.
It’s also a great big lie.
Although it seems like we can text a friend while we’re listening to a podcast, or check email and talk on the phone about dinner plans at the same time, that’s not what’s actually happening.
In reality, studies show clearly that our attention moves back and forth between the tasks, shifting focus from one to another in succession, unable to focus on more than one thing at a time; even worse, overloading your brain with too much information at once can actually be detrimental.
The key to greater productivity, then, is cultivating the ability shift attention between tasks while staying firmly focused on each activity in turn.
And this applies not only to activities, but to where we place our attention altogether, including the thoughts, feelings, and perceptions that occupy our minds from morning to night.
If our hammer is heading for the nail and our mind is remembering last month’s awesome diving vacation in Cancun, we’re going to hit our thumb – not the water.
Where is your mind right now?
Is it right here, fully engaged in reading this post, or is it bouncing around thinking about the project sitting on your desk, or your dinner plans for later this evening?
Everyone experiences this wandering mind phenomena many times during the course of the day. If you’ve ever found yourself reading a book and suddenly noticed you have no idea what happened in the last page and a half, you know exactly what I mean.
We lose interest easily, boredom takes over, we give in to distractions, and not much is accomplished. Attention is draining out of your mind like water from a leaky bucket and you’re not operating at full power.
One especially pernicious way we lose power is when emotions co-opt attention. If you’re cold calling and your mind is distracted by thoughts about a rude gatekeeper or your frustrations over the last call, your energy drains out and you lose your mojo.
Making prospecting calls requires focused attention. You have to listen, make notes, understand what’s being said, identify the correct decision makers at target companies, and influence qualified people to want to meet with you.
If you’re not focused on the immediate moment, you’re absolutely going to miss something.
The Solution to Distraction
There is a remedy. It’s simple. But it’s not always easy.
We need to be more alert and vigilant about how we focus attention and what we pay attention to. Just notice when your mind wanders and bring it back home to the task at hand. We need to synchronize our intention and our attention; our mind (which flits all over the place) and our body (which is always right here).
These days there’s lots of talk about mindfulness, and with good reason. We’re living and working in the age of hyper-distraction. Our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. Movie edits are faster and faster. Gadgets and devices are everywhere and everything is vying for our attention. Staying focused requires real effort.
Touch & Go
Cultivating sharper attention doesn’t mean we have to go on a meditation retreat. Being mindful is something we can just do – right now, on the spot.
Think of it as a process of touch and go. Notice when our mind gets caught up thinking, purposefully let that thought or feeling go, and come back to what we’re doing right there on the spot.
We’ve developed the habit of paying too much attention to every thought and feeling that arises. We’ve built that habit over a long time. And habits can be hard to break.
Learning to be good at paying attention takes practice. But consider this – every time we get carried away by thoughts or emotions, we’re practicing being distracted.
Every time we think about past frustration or disappointments, we’re strengthening a habit. Brain studies show that repeating those negative thought patterns over and over creates and deepens particular neural pathways, just like traffic patterns causes ruts in a dirt road. The more often we think those thoughts, the deeper the ruts become.
It’s not the thoughts themselves that are the problem. It’s our habit of glomming onto them and letting them distract us from the immediate present, and the task at hand.
To change direction, and reshape our brains the way we want, we just have to make a consistent effort to do things differently – to notice the thoughts that our mind chases after, and to stop, let go of those thoughts, and bring our mind back to the present situation.
Humans have the innate capacity to be aware of our state of mind, and direct our attention where we want it. Every time we notice, let go, and bring attention back to the immediate moment, we’re strengthening our ability to stay focused.
It may take some time to shift from the habit of narrating our experience call-by-call, encounter-by-encounter, but we’re not talking about years and years. Mindfulness studies show marked results in months, not years.
So notice when you get caught up with mental distractions and drop them. See the phone, the desk, and the computer in front of you. Smell the air in the room. Appreciate the freshness of that immediate moment.
Then go ahead and focus on the nail, swing the hammer, keep your mind right there and don’t worry about hitting your thumb.