I recently read somewhere that human beings have around 25,000 thoughts a day. Add to that the fact that we are constantly inundated with novel stimuli from a friend’s new ringtone to the commercial in the train tunnel. Given this kind of chaos, it’s hardly surprising that our minds wander when we’re trying to focus on a given task.
Of course, paying attention is easiest when you’re engrossed in a task you find interesting. My mind never jumps over to an email I have to answer or the meal I have to fix when I’m watching Black Mirror. But the reality of work is that a lot of tasks are boring, and we have to do them well and efficiently anyway.
Fortunately, the solution is pretty simple – you just have to practice catching your mind in the act of wandering. Note how long you can generally focus on a routine work task before your brain decides to call it quits, and try to divide tasks into small chunks that can be accomplished in this time period. When I’m working on a book, for example, I write only three pages at a time because this task takes me roughly one hour, or the length of my own natural attention span.
If you must work on an assignment or attend a meeting that lasts longer than your brain can tolerate, don’t chastise yourself when external thoughts start intruding, because that will make the situation worse. Accept a little off-task thinking, and then commit to another period of focus.
The greater your awareness of where your attention lies, the more effectively you will be able to control it.
Alexandra Levit is a Partner at PeopleResults and is passionate about helping people and organizations succeed in the evolving workplace. You can reach her at email@example.com or on Twitter @alevit.