How long do you work before your eyes wander to your cell phone or your mouse creeps to your inbox? According to Curt Steinhorst, business owner, entrepreneur and founder of FocusWise, the average person only works two to three minutes at a time before being interrupted by a digital distraction. What’s worse is that it takes 20 minutes to return to the original task.
“The truth is, it’s never been harder to work than it is today and there’s a lot of good reasons for that,” Steinhorst told attendees at the National Pest Management Association (NPMA) Academy, held last July in Scottsdale, Ariz.
When it comes to technology, there are more options than ever before — and there’s no longer a learning curve. This new wealth of information creates a lack of attention.
“We live in an attention economy. You want your customers’ attention? They want to pay you so they don’t have to pay attention to their bug challenges,” Steinhorst observed. “Everyone is asking for your (attention) and the one thing that we often find ourselves not doing is giving it to the things that will actually drive us forward and actually make us successful.”
But there is a way to be balanced.
“We can have the benefits without having to have the consequences,” Steinhorst said. “We call it being ‘focus wise’ — making wise decisions about where we put our focus.”
FOCUS WISE. It may be easy to read an article about taking a six-month digital detox (and tempting!), but Steinhorst says there are smaller, more realistic steps anyone can take to help themselves focus more effectively. Before taking those steps, however, it is important to understand just what focus is.
“We know we have a lot of needs from our team. We have customers that need us, and our solution is ... to react to all of it, all the time, no matter what time of day or night,” said Steinhorst. “We aren’t made to do this. Any time we add a task we’re taking away from the energy you can commit to one task.”
He’s not saying that multitasking is a myth, but Steinhorst did liken focus to looking through a pair of binoculars.
“You don’t see everything; it’s actually pretty limited in what you can see. When you move locations in them you lose focus; you have to reorient, you have to adjust things,” he said. “That’s how it is with our brains. We can only focus on a single sphere at a time and we can only put our active attention on one area. And when you try to move that to another area, what we end up doing is costing ourselves time and quality of work.”
That doesn’t mean multitasking is out of the picture, as long as the tasks are in the same sphere.
“Expertise is being able to put more things on autopilot within that sphere,” said Steinhorst. “That only comes with focused attention in that space. When we flip back and forth we can’t get that benefit.”
This is an issue when there are two systems competing in the brain. “We have a system that allows us to actively focus, to ignore things that are coming at us, but then we have this base system, and that’s called bottom of attention,” Steinhorst said. “That’s what keeps us alive, and actually that system is constantly on the prowl for new stimulus. We like to find new things that come in our surroundings, things we don’t expect because that’s how we survive.”
Although that base system keeps us alive, it isn’t very helpful when you have to stare at a spreadsheet all day. So, in a world where focus is necessary to produce good work, but also where humans are not exactly made to focus, how can an individual succeed at work?
Steinhorst likens this scenario to being on a raft in an ocean of distraction.
“We feel very aware of how we’re overwhelmed by work. We feel there aren’t enough hours in the day, but what we often end up doing is we live as the victim of whatever input comes at us; whatever someone suggests; whatever message comes toward us; whatever email comes in; and we’re basically operating as rafts in an ocean of distraction,” he said. “And while it feels like we’re speeding up, we’re actually doing the virtual speeding up of a treadmill because we aren’t dictating or charting the course forward.”
But with the right tools, processes, systems and information, Steinhorst said we can proactively dictate a course through the ocean.
WHAT DISTRACTS US? Before we can dictate that course through the ocean, we need to know four factors that enable or deter us from paying attention, Steinhorst said.
The first is energy. According to Steinhorst, research shows that the majority of people struggle most to maintain focus at the end of the day — likely when they are the most fatigued.
“We have to think about how we’re structuring our day to be realistic about how well we can focus,” he said. “We start our days with a to-do list and we knock off all the easy stuff because we want to get stuff done. The stuff that takes real focus and real work we leave for the time when we don’t have the energy left to do it.”
Pair that with the decision fatigue that comes along with the endless options available before even arriving at work and it’s clear that energy is depleted quickly.
“This is also really important for customers because one of the things that you can do is be the trusted expert so that they don’t have to make decisions,” Steinhorst said. “They’re paying you to cut through all of the information and that’s why it’s never been easier for us to do anything we want and we can find a way to do it online, but we get overwhelmed and we don’t have the energy resources to be able to focus on it so we’re paying you. The more things they have to think about, the less likely they are going to be to use you.”
Another factor when it comes to focus is emotions. Steinhorst said that emotions can drive people to extend their focus when they’re exhausted, but they can also be a source of distraction. And people are feeling less emotionally connected to their work than ever.
“Two-thirds of people say they get to the end of the work day and they can’t remember what they did, much less why they did it,” said Steinhorst. “Without space we can’t emotionally process, so as leaders it’s our responsibility to be creative and intentional in encouraging and providing feedback to our team, so that they understand and they will push their focus boundaries farther than we normally would.”
Sometimes even a silly 5-minute video is powerful enough to fuel an hour’s worth of focus.
“The better the mood you’re in the more likely you are to focus on things you wouldn’t otherwise want to focus on,” he said. “If you’re in a bad mood you’re going to go to whatever can give you immediate gratification.”
Other times focus comes down to the environment. Whether there are four people sitting in your line of vision or your cell phone is within your sight, the potential is there for diminished focus. “It’s amazing how frustrated we get that we can’t focus, but we don’t think of the basics of literally what is in our sight,” Steinhorst said. “Having your phone out reduces your working memory and your creativity because there’s a part of our resource that had to say, ‘What if there’s an update? What if there’s something to check? What if there’s something we can use to avoid what we’re doing now?’”
Experience is Steinhorst’s final factor in potential focus.
“We are creatures of habit. We do the same things. We live to go to the same places. We like to experience the same types of things and really, the way we really like it, is we like to do certain things in certain places,” he said. “Now we can do everything everywhere and that really erodes our focus.”
HOW TECHNOLOGY HURTS. Creating designated work spaces and breaking those habits that also cause breaks in focus can help. Oftentimes, people consider focus and distraction simply a technology issue, but according to Steinhorst it runs much deeper.
“What we’re talking about at its core when it comes to technology is we’re talking about the fact that it creates access for us,” he said. “Endless access, you can connect with anyone, anywhere, any time. Access is a good thing, but there are some challenges with it. Namely that it wires our brains to want more of it.”
Steinhorst gave the example of an email with exciting news. Now the brain is trained to identify emails with good news, and the intermittent reinforcement of actual good news has us running back to our inboxes.
So, Steinhorst uses tools to curb his access. Before using a new tool, however, he asks himself some questions.
Does it promote or prevent focus? According to Steinhorst, people often fall into one of two categories: all technology is bad, or the technology we have is fine. Sometimes, however, new technologies can actually provide control, like email filters and do not disturb functions on cell phones.
He also asks if it saps or saves potential resources, another important consideration for business owners.
“We’re consuming 400 percent more information than the average person in 1986. The number one problem is that we don’t differentiate importance well,” Steinhorst said. “Everything feels equally important. So now what we’re doing is grabbing and grabbing and grabbing and we’re not doing anything well.”
Finally, he looks at if the new technology would help or harm relationships.
“One of the biggest things we see is a rise in conflict because of digital communication,” said Steinhorst. “Why does it create more conflict when it should create more connection?”
Although digital communication is efficient, it takes away the deep connection of seeing another person smile or misconstrues a sarcastic remark.
What Steinhorst recommends is creating a plan for how to communicate within an organization.
“We have to sit down, because we communicate about everything, and make decisions as teams to say when and how we’re going to communicate,” he said. “We talk about everything except about when and how we’re going to communicate with each other.”
So, what can you do to improve your focus today? Steinhorst suggests starting by creating some barriers. Something as simple as a sign on your door or putting your cell phone inside your desk can help give you the focus time you need — especially if you’re a leader.
“Somewhere along the way, the idea came that to be a leader is to always be available — that you can’t be unavailable if you are leading or if you are in a position of management. That’s the core function,” said Steinhorst. “Here’s the problem: If you are always available you are eliminating the very thing that will create your competitive advantage which is the stability to think, strategize, process, prioritize. Access is the enemy of ingenuity. You simply can’t be excellent as a leader if you are always accessible.”
He also recommends creating a priority list with a couple of long-term projects you may not get to; a couple large action items for the day; and all the small chores you need to get done.
Another easy way to improve focus is to have an outlet to get out and organize ideas that may be distracting currently, but could be very useful at the right time. Steinhorst recommends the organizational app Evernote.
And when everything seems like it’s too much, Steinhorst simply recommends changing your narrative.
“We want to find actionable, simple mantras that attack the stories that keep us from working when we don’t want to work,” said Steinhorst. Some of his favorites are, “You can only do one thing at a time,” “You love this” and, of course, “If you finish this you can have a beer.”
He recommends blocking out the allure — there is always someone on vacation, always someone with a new creative video and always someone with faster social media replies, but dwelling on those things can derail you when it comes to executing what you should be focused on.
And finally, Steinhorst recommends talking it out.
“We have to gather our teams for a simple discussion where we communicate and set ground rules and expectations for when we’re available; how we reach each other; what we really need from each other,” he said. “We call this a communication compact — it’s something we decide together and out of it comes a way that we actually govern how we work together. It’s so easy, it only takes an hour.”
Whether it’s a communication meeting with your team, or one of Steinhorst’s other actionable recommendations, decide which small step towards better focus you can take today — before you check your cell phone again.
The author is a Cleveland-based writer who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.