Focus at Work
In the past, workers could focus more easiliy. Today, technology is pervasively distracting. Employees must be constantly alert to interruptions, phone calls, emails, text messages and deadlines. Modern, burdensome “PAID reality” – which encompasses “Pressure,” “Always” being open for business, suffering “Information” overload and being routinely “Distracted” – makes it difficult to pay attention to the work in front of you.
The brain can only focus on one mental task at a time, so multitasking doesn’t work. What people call multitasking actually involves a constant shifting of focus from one task to another, or “shift-tasking.” This relentless change of focus reduces productivity, generates poor decision making and inhibits creativity. Multitasking is inefficient and leads to mistakes. Fortunately, it is not the only method available when you must cope with a lot of work.
The Mindfulness Solution
The time-honored practice of mindfulness can help you handle constant distractions. Mindfulness, a mental methodology dating back thousands of years, depends on “trained attention” – managing your focus, improving your awareness and sharpening your vision.
Practicing mindfulness allows you to pause and think for “one second” before you allow distractions to interfere with your work. During that second, you can decide to ignore the distraction or to give in to it. Learning how to handle that single second demands training and knowledge.
Mindfulness calls for cultivating “a mind in balance” that perceives reality and has a strong moral base. If your mind sees clearly, you know reality always changes and that brief pleasures don’t fuel true contentment. Mindfulness helps you eliminate stress, increase your creativity and realize your potential. It can make you a better, kinder person.
Individuals who use mindfulness are a crucial “one second ahead” of the normal automatic response to stimulus – be it an email, voice message or text. During this “one-second mental gap,” the person makes a conscious decision about where to focus his or her attention. This second makes the difference between simply working and working brilliantly.
Mindfulness puts people in charge of their minds, attention and thoughts. Mindfulness helps generate “a stronger immune system, lower blood pressure and a lower heart rate.” Mindfulness reduces stress and improves sleep. It helps workers shorten the amount of time they need to do a job and increase their productivity. It enhances “customer service, safety” and “teamwork.”
“Rules of Mental Effectiveness”
Being mindful relies on following two rules of mental effectiveness:
- “Focus on what you choose” – You can control where you place your attention. When an email, text or telephone call beeps for your attention, purposely decide not to focus on it. Try to remain centered on your work. Realize you can cope with most distractions later.
- “Choose your distractions mindfully” – When you stop to decide whether to divert your attention away from your work, make a quick evaluation about the best choice. Decide to focus on one thing or another, but don’t attempt to multitask.
The two rules lead to three options: 1) Decide to ignore the distraction and continue to pay close attention to your work; 2) Inform the distraction – for example, your boss – that you look forward to meeting at a specified later time to discuss whatever is on his or her mind; or 3) Put aside your work and shift your attention to the distraction. After you handle it, return to your work.
Mindfulness enables you to operate with the maximum “mental bandwidth” to use your conscious mind to address what is in front of you. When you are mindful, you stay in the present.
Mindfulness is not easy to implement, at least not at first. It goes against the human tendency to respond automatically to visitors, emails, voice mails, text messages and other distractions. Strive to make mindfulness a part of your life.
Each time you take a one-second break to stop and think about whether you want to shift focus, you strengthen your mindfulness habit. That makes it easier to exercise mindfulness to address each subsequent interruption.
To develop mindfulness, train hard in your “mental gym” to rewire your brain’s “neurological pathways.” Spend “10 minutes a day, five to seven days a week” on mindfulness training. Your training will involve developing “sharp focus”; learning to concentrate on the thoughts that matter most; and ignoring random notions that, willy-nilly, enter your consciousness and steal your time.
When you enhance the sharpness of your focus, you will feel more relaxed and you’ll be able to approach your work with more clarity.
Use the ABCD approach for mindfulness training:
- “Anatomy” – Besides your thoughts, emails, voice mails, and so on, your body itself can be a distraction. Mindfulness requires starting in the correct position. Sit up straight on a chair. Put both feet squarely on the floor. Close your eyes. Release all tension in your body. Breathe through your nose. Relax with each breath.
- “Breathing” – Your attention requires an anchor: your breath. Focus fully on your breathing. Concentrate on your stomach expanding and contracting with your breathing. Don’t try to control your breathing. Just observe it.
- “Counting” – Count sets of 10 breaths – one in-breath and one out-breath. Then count another series of 10 sets, but this time backward. Repeat. Counting improves your focus. If stray thoughts interfere with your counting, make sure you focus more on your breathing. If you inadvertently find yourself reaching a number higher than 10, you are operating on autopilot, which is the opposite of “managing your attention.” Should this happen, simply begin the counting process again. For your mindfulness training, keep “the end goals in sight – a relaxed body and a calm mind.” If counting doesn’t relax you, don’t do it.
- “Distractions” – You may erroneously assume that distractions – “anything that is not your breath” – have no place in mindfulness training. The point of training is to learn how to manage your distractions. Therefore, you want some distractions during your training. Handle them with three strategies. First, “relax.” Ask yourself if the distraction is making you tense. If so, release the tension. The distraction is performing a valuable service: It lets you know that “your attention has drifted.” Second, “release” – Get rid of the distraction by focusing on your breathing. Move your focus from the distraction to your breathing. Third, “Return” – Once you have eliminated the distraction from your mind, return to your breathing.
It is normal for your training to segue back and forth from breathing to distractions. The goal of the training is not to eliminate distractions; it is to notice them and redirect your focus to something else – in this case your breathing.
“Relaxation, Focus and Clarity”
Mindfulness training concerns “relaxation, focus and clarity.” To promote relaxation, scan your body for feelings of tension when you breathe in. When you breathe out, concentrate on the specific point of tension and release it with your out-breath. Dissipating tension may take numerous out-breaths. Don’t work hard at it. The point of this training is to relax, not to become agitated. If you can’t relax, don’t worry about it. Put aside your “performance expectations.” Just pay attention to your breathing, which is, of course, a totally natural process. Be a “neutral observer,” and heed your breathing.
The Alert Moment
To cultivate clarity, focus on your posture and sit up straight. Take a deep breath. Think of this single breath and subsequent ones as singular experiences. Try to get in close touch with your breathing. If you begin to feel drowsy, “increase your alertness.” Mindfulness training clarifies your thinking. You’ll quickly realize when you become distracted. The alert moment occurs when you make a conscious decision to ignore the distraction and attend to your work.
Open awareness is central to mindfulness. You observe your mind. For this aspect of mindfulness training, breathing no longer functions as the “anchor for your attention.” Instead, distractions perform this function. Utilize the same basic training approach that worked with sharp focus.
Once you achieve relaxation, focus and clarity, open your awareness. Stop paying attention to your breathing. When a distraction enters your consciousness, focus completely upon it. Label it, for example, as a “thought, sensation” or “feeling.” Monitor the distraction until it vanishes – and it will. Do the same with the next distraction, and the next and the next. If distractions overwhelm you, switch your focus back to your breathing. Mindfulness is about gaining that crucial second: the open-awareness moment. You can make this choice because you “observe your thoughts.” Open awareness calls on three insights:
- “Everything changes” – This includes all distractions. So don’t attach yourself to any.
- “Happiness is a choice” – If distractions have a negative effect on your life, make the smart choice and move past them.
- “Everything is potential” – Many people think they are clearly defined entities. Everything, in fact, exists in a state of becoming, including you.
No “solid, isolated self” exists. Everything is transitory, including distractions. Use your one second of clarity to move beyond them.
Use these techniques and strategies in the office and at home to handle distractions and live mindfully:
- Emails – Turn off your email “notifications, pop-up windows, alarms and ring tones.” Set aside three specific times during the day – not early morning – to handle emails.
- Meetings – With the right mental attitude, you can be fully present for meetings. Focus on your breathing to clear your mind.
- Communication – Effective interactions involve being present. Breathe and listen.
- Beginner’s mind – Mindfulness practitioners refer to a “fresh perspective” as beginner’s mind. It can provide clarity, which leads to creativity and new ideas.
- “Letting go” – Many people have a hard time shutting down at the end of the day. Others can’t put old tasks out of their mind when they move on to new ones. Practitioners of mindfulness learn to control their minds and their thoughts.
- Priorities – Workers spend an average of 41% of their time on low-priority activities. Pause briefly to think about which tasks are most important. Then attend to them.
The late mindfulness master Ribur Rinpoche (1923-2006) spent 17 years in a Chinese prison because he refused to renounce his Buddhist beliefs. Rinpoche’s jailers tortured him daily. Despite his travails, he practiced mindfulness in his cell and during torture, while remaining strong and resilient. After his release, Rinpoche didn’t hate his jailers. He felt compassion for them because they were forced to torture him. Rinpoche’s invincible spirit offers dramatic testimony to the power of mindfulness.