• Brent Stromwall

Pay Attention

Earl Miller, professor of neuroscience at MIT, says that when people say they can multitask they’re deluding themselves. The brain does not process more than one task at a time. "You're not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly," Miller says.


Because humans are wired for community, our brains desire to connect. Every email, text message, bing and buzz from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or email alerts, all cause you to lose focus on your primary task. And each time your brain has to switch there’s a delay as it takes time to refocus on each new task. Studies show that it takes an average of 15 minutes for the brain to reorient to a primary task after a distraction.


This all costs your business money and undermines developing healthy work relationships. Just imagine how inefficient you are when it takes the brain 15 minutes to catch up. Studies reveal that we can be up to 40% less effective in addition to being more prone to make mistakes. The cost of not staying focused can pile up!

What can you do to minimize the money leak? First, the steps you can take to help yourself:

  1. Close the door. Remember closing your office door so that you wouldn’t be disturbed as you diligently focused on an important task? Today, you must close the virtual door – turn off notifications, silence or turn off the phone, and close the other open windows on your computer. And take off that smartwatch, too! All of the technology that helps you become more productive also prevents you from being efficient and accurate.

  2. Stick to one task. Our attention spans have been shortened. It now takes more diligence to stay focused on the task at hand and not divert ourselves to something else. Be intentional about focusing your effort on one task at a time. And when you start to lose interest (in about 18 minutes) write yourself a note about what you were doing and then switch to another task or take a break.

  3. Filter. Not all sources of information are useful for challenging your thought processes and decision-making. Search the internet intentionally with curiosity so that you don’t feed yourself only that which will confirm your thinking.

  4. Schedule. Block out specific times during the day when you will check social media, read and respond to emails, or answer phone messages.

When you aren’t focused on a task, consider others:

  1. Stop interrupting. Interrupting a colleague or employee may not be worth it. Your interruption will cause them to lose time and energy as they switch focus. You can help others stay focused and increase their efficiency by not interrupting them. Ask yourself, is this interruption worth the money we’re about to lose for it?

  2. Celebrate focus. Finally, evaluate if you are expecting your employees to “multi-task.” If so, you are creating a culture that rewards inefficiency. Some leaders and supervisors celebrate when someone can “juggle several balls” at the same time. This actually encourages inefficiency and inaccuracy. Instead, promote focus and attention by providing your employees with the tools that are useful for them to close the door. And celebrate when they put up a “Do Not Disturb” sign on their door.

One final thought: please stop taking your phone and laptop to meetings. Everyone else knows that you’re not engaged and participating at 100%. This just demonstrates how little you value others in the room and the work they’re trying to get done – and how little you consider your value to the conversation. Consider if this behavior creates belonging and brings out the best in a team through creative collaboration. See: Do I Belong Here?

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