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Glenford Smith | The perils of inattention

Published:Thursday | February 23, 2017 | 12:00 AM

The biggest challenge facing us today is where to place our attention; where our focus goes. This presents a challenge for the so-called little man and the so-called big man. And women are right there in the mix.

To get anything done, we must pay attention to it. And when we are distracted by mobile phones, a gossiping co-worker, or open email, it can take us at least five times longer to complete our work. All this is damaging to careers and good productivity habits. The perils of inattention have become a big problem as they have become ubiquitous.

I will here address the myth of multitasking, our brain's rewiring of itself, and the habit of co-workers interrupting us.

Multitasking refers to doing multiple task simultaneously, for example, talking on the phone and checking your email. First of all, multitasking doesn't work. It serves to scatter our focus and makes us much less efficient. We are far less productive. Let's look at this a little more.




Research was done on 36 office workers and how they spent their time minute by minute was recorded. The researchers found that the employees devoted an average of just 11 minutes to a project before the ping of an email, the ring of the phone, or a knock on the cubicle pulled them in another direction.

Once they were interrupted, it took on average, a stunning 25 minutes to return to the original task - if they managed to do so at all that day. The workers in the study were juggling 12 projects apiece - a situation one subject describes as "constant multitasking craziness".

To notice ourselves, we have to say that we are slaves to our technological gadgets. And it isn't a stretch to say that our brains are rewiring themselves with the result that we're losing the ability to maintain our focus for sustained periods.

In our current Internet world, our ability to focus single-mindedly for a sustained period is compromised. Psychologists refer to 'disconnection anxiety', which many may experience when they don't have an Internet or cell phone reception.




We are hearing tales of husbands having their mobile phones while they make love. Researchers say that dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in seeking rewards and stimulation, is undoubtedly at work.

"If we could measure it as we're shifting attention from one thing to another, we would probably find that the brain is pumping out little shots of dopamine to give us a buzz," says Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey.

Some people, in addition to battling multitasking and the rewiring of the brain, must contend with co-workers' interruptions. Sometimes they come with little bits of delicious gossip. These are not 'bad', but they do interrupt us. Research now shows that interruptions consume an average of at least 2.1 hours a day, or 28 per cent of the workday.

What do you do? Put up a 'do not disturb' sign where it is easily visible. Practise discipline. It is a daily habit. Have special times when you fraternise. Let everyone know that when you can't be disturbed, it is not a sign that you are antisocial or that you don't want to talk. It is just a part of self-management.

- Glenford Smith is a motivational speaker and success strategist. He is the author of 'From Problems to Power' and co-author of 'Profile of Excellence'.