Staying focused on one task could be the biggest challenge in the digital era. It requires enormous self-control, which science tells us is almost beyond our ability.
“We’re free to indulge our every whim, no matter how trivial, and that’s exactly what we do,” says Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project and author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working.
There’s even a term for the fractured way we now focus—“continuous partial attention.” It’s the way we keep a top-level item in focus even as we scan the periphery for something more alluring, reassuring or less demanding.
Schwartz believes these six simple steps are the first steps to taking back control of our attention—and our lives.
1. Let your deepest values become a more powerful guide to your behaviors.
Ask yourself: What do you truly stand for? How do you want to behave, no matter what? Keep those commitments in mind, both as a source of energy and a direction for your behaviors.
2. Slow down. The faster you’re moving, the more likely you’re reacting rather than reflecting.
Check in with yourself at intentional times during the day. Think of them as “wake-up calls.”
3. Ritualize behaviors. For example, do the most important thing in the morning, uninterrupted, for 60 to 90 minutes.
4. Create “precommitments” to minimize temptations—just as you might avoid stocking your pantry with unhealthful foods.
For example, commit to turning off your e-mail entirely for a particular time span each day. Consider working on a laptop without an Internet connection.
5. Tell others what you intend to do, and ask them to hold you accountable.
6. Start small and build your “concentration” muscle over time. “What’s your current limit for truly focused concentration?” asks Schwartz. “Build it up in increments. And don’t go past 90 minutes without a break.”
— Adapted from “Take Back Your Attention,” Tony Schwartz, Harvard Business Review blog.
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