A couple years ago the NY Times ran a great piece on the science of concentration that highlighted the work of science writer Winifred Gallagher and her book Rapt. I recently got around to reading the book, a survey of current research from psychologists, neuroscientists, and others into how we pay attention.
Among other things, the research confirms what many meditation and yoga gurus have said for a long time: frequently achieving flow-like states of intense focus leads to a more fulfilling and rewarding life. Paying “rapt” attention isn’t easy, but science increasingly offers ways to improve the skill.
While I had some complaints about the book, Rapt has helped me a lot in my work. Here were my 3 big takeaways:
1. Stop multitasking.
Like most people, I used to think multitasking was a more efficient way to get a lot of things done than just doing them one at a time. “Ability to multitask” is one of the most common skills listed on job postings and resumes. And those people who analyze complex data while emailing, IM’ing, and tweeting do seem awfully productive.
Rapt convinced me otherwise. “People in the trenches may still be debating its benefits and drawbacks,” says Gallagher, “but science has determined that multitasking is for all practical purposes a myth.” Yes, you can chew gum and walk at the same time. But for non-rote activities like those most of us do at work, “your ability to do two things simultaneously is impaired because both tasks draw on one or more of the same information-processing systems in the brain. … You may think you’re multitasking when you’re listening to your boss’s report while texting your lunch date, but what you’re really doing is switching back and forthbetween activities” (emphasis added).
So what?, you say. What if I’m great at switching between activities? Not likely, says Gallagher, because there are huge “rebooting” costs to switching — often up to 20 minutes to get back to the same level of focus. In the end, if you multitask, your performance will be “inefficient, error-prone, and more time-consuming than if you had done one thing at a time.”
Now, when someone brags to me about their great multitasking ability, I enjoy telling them that, scientifically speaking, there’s no such thing. More importantly, I make much more effort to focus on a single task until it’s complete, tuning out all other distractions. Which leads me to …
2. Turn off your email and phone for long stretches.
When you’re truly immersed in a project you enjoy, it’s easy to stay focused. The challenge is when the task is boring, or when your mind is fried, or when you’re just starting something. That’s when I used to find myself hoping the phone would ring and tabbing over to check email every 5 minutes. Something, anything to both distract me and make me feel more productive at the same time.
While stimulating, getting sucked into this kind of reaction mode often left me feeling like I hadn’t really accomplished anything at the end of the day. I’m no productivity expert, but I can say that I’ve become much more productive since consciously turning off my email and phone ringer for long stretches — inspired in large part by Rapt.
I now try to check email just 3 times a day: first thing in the morning, after lunch, and at the end of the day. Because the temptation to open new email messages is so strong, I use afilter-based Gmail trick that allows me to have my Gmail open (so I can search for archived messages or send new messages) without ever noticing when new messages come in — until I consciously decide to check.
Yes, clients or colleagues probably wish sometimes that I picked up the phone more or responded to their emails in 10 minutes. But I’m confident they prefer me finishing their larger, more important projects with fewer hours and higher quality. In the long run, that’s what really matters. Plus, cranking through 20 email messages in a half hour feels so much better than responding to them one at a time throughout the afternoon.
3. Wear headphones.
I used to feel bad about wearing headphones at work. It feels anti-social and anti-collaborative; plus it hurts my ears after a while. Same with hiding out in conference rooms or libraries when I need to write or really focus.
No longer. “We evolved to attend to human speech,” says Gallagher, “which can make life in an open-plan office very difficult.” Human voices compete for your brain’s finite attention and often win, especially when they pop up out of nowhere. Tuning them out takes a lot of “prefrontal” brain power, leaving you with much less power to focus on your work. After doing the research for her book, Gallagher started taking ear plugs with her wherever she goes. When doing difficult work in distracting environments, you have to create “stimulus shelters” that allow you to focus for at least 90 minutes at a stretch.
I love Affinity Lab, the shared office space where we have a workstation. It brings us new clients and partners, makes me smarter, and keeps me sane. But Rapt has taught me to take advantage of its learning and collaboration opportunities in more selective, focused ways — e.g. through brown bag lunches and happy hours. When I really need to focus, I head to quieter terrain or crank up the headphones… guilt-free.
Disagree with my takeaways? Have your own concentration tips? Share them on our blog, where you can also read my short critique of Rapt.
Read John Tierney’s NY Times column on the science of concentration and his follow-up blog post featuring reader Q&A with Gallagher and a neuroscientist from her book.
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