It’s an understatement to say that, as marketers, salespeople and startup types, we rely on technology. It’s our boss, our ally and our blessing. It’s (almost) the only thing we need to get by.
And yet, it can also feel like a curse.
Today’s online landscape often seems purpose-built to destroy the only other thing we need — our focus.
An AI-powered era is just round the corner: one conducted in other realms of (virtual) reality, where every object we interact with is hooked up to the Internet of Things. Exciting, yes. But won’t these advances seal us in our online alter-universe forever, fragmenting our dwindling focus even more? That’s one possibility. But we believe in another. What if technology, the cause of the problem, could also help us solve it?
One million new tabs
Multitasking is a myth. The neuroscience leaves no room for ifs or buts: we’re wired to be mono-taskers. When humans try and do a bunch of things at once, all of those things suffer. And continually switching between tasks actually lowers our mental capacity over time. That’s because the brain has a finite amount of cognitive resources that it can commit to sustained creative thought. Disrupt these resources with the endless seductions of the internet and it plummets even more.
Take me as an example:
Within the first half hour of trying to write this article (tab 1) I refreshed my email which prompted me to start a new task (tab 2), I then remembered to check PayPal and make a transfer to a friend (tab 3) who afterwards I decided to message on Slack (tab 4). There’s an expression for this: toggling between tasks. Or in my case, toggling between tabs: the urge to ‘quickly’ open a new one is as intuitive as scratching an itch. One leads to another. And another. And with every new tab, we create a bit more clutter — on our screen and in our brains.
Working through distractions
Distraction at work is a Big Deal. And it costs businesses Big Bucks. One study claims that the average employee only stays focused for three out of their eight-hour working day. So, it’s no surprise that “How to increase productivity” is one of the most commonly-Googled questions of all time.
There’s a difference between self-inflicted distractions — social media, personal conversations, online shopping — and work-inflicted distractions. Distractions that, as salespeople and marketers, can seem unavoidable: after all, they’re baked into our job spec. Sales manager? Wading through the never-ending noise from email notifications is a full-time exercise in concentration.
Content marketer? Good luck researching topics all day without finding yourself going off on a tangent.
The various demands of our fast-paced daily lives can feel like a constant attempt to find a quiet, undisturbed corner in an over-crowded theme-park.
The art of flow
The human brain is a funny, fluttery thing. It’s the one part of our body we can never keep ‘in check’ — the harder we try, the quicker our thoughts slip out of our grasp. As I outlined in my last piece, ‘flow’ is a beautiful state to be in. The hours float by; we’re barely aware that we’re working. It’s the feeling of being so absorbed in an experience that nothing else seems to matter. Your concentration becomes so intense, there’s no space left for intrusive or irrelevant thoughts. It’s where the magic happens.
Beautiful, yes. Elusive — also yes.
In many ways, chasing it is comparable to the pursuit of a good night’s sleep. We can’t force it — but we can set up an environment to that’s conducive to producing it.
Helpful: Dimly-lit room, crisp sheets, a slightly boring book.
Not helpful: Loud music, red bull, bright lights.
The state of productive ‘flow’ is no different. There are steps we can take to open our mind and welcome it in; and others that will have it running for the hills. For instance, I know my individual productivity thrives in a silent room full of daylight, aided by one double-shot espresso. The AC should be extra-chilly as heat makes me drowsy. Some of my colleagues swear by uncomfy chairs to keep them in the zone; others work best from the comfort of their sofa. It all depends. But, like most people need a bed to drop off in, there’s one key building block in a flow-welcoming environment.
A single blank slate.
Creating your blank slate
Not literally. For a writer, it might be a page in their notebook + a pen. For an artist, their canvas lined with paints and brushes. For me, it can generally be boiled down to a single tab, spreadsheet or document. This blank slate represents is all the resources you need — in one place, right in front of you — nothing more, nothing less.
No fishing around for extra information elsewhere, no Google searches, no new tabs. No reason to leave your headspace, your room, your zone. Because when we switch to a new task, even for a couple of seconds, our fragile blank slate shatters.
On average, it takes us 25 minutes to mentally return to our original task after an interruption, and when we do return, we’re often unable to work to the same capacity as we were previously.
Before we know it, our precious state of flow has floated into the stratosphere.