It is common to assume most people don’t focus because they’re distracted. Almost weekly, it seems, an article pops up in the media about how overwhelmed people are by incoming communications, how much time they waste on social media, and how much FOMO (fear of missing out) they feel, causing them to peek at every text, email, or ping. But when our data came back from our study of 5,000 managers and employees, I discovered that these distractions were only part of the problem.
In our study, we asked people what made it hard for them to focus. Their answers fell into 3 buckets (where percentages denote how many mentioned this, with another 17% stating “other).
1. Their do-more boss (24%).
Pesky “do-more” bosses failed to give them clear direction and lobbed too many priorities their way. James, a junior management consultant in my study, told me of an occasion when a partner asked him to help with a sales pitch. James was already crazy busy working on a very important project with an upcoming deadline. His boss asked him to do both. James didn’t have enough time to do both and still keep quality high. Sound familiar? This situation arises all the time in today’s busy workplaces.
2. Broad scope (38%).
People complained about having too many things on their plate—they had too many tasks, meetings, and other work activities to handle. This is in part created by superiors but many times not. One small business owner in our study told us she and her team had for years been taking on too many unattractive assignments in industries she didn’t know well. With her efforts spread too thin, her performance suffered. “The stress was just horrible,” she said. “I felt pulled in 100 different directions.” She ranked in the bottom 20% in our 5,000-person sample in terms of her ability to focus.
A third barrier to focus for many people in my study was temptations and distractions. Think text, Slack, interrupting colleagues, and the inability to discipline oneself. Cubicles in many workplaces offer scant protection from interrupting office mates. Our devices beep incessantly, alerting us to incoming texts and phone calls that beckon our attention. And of course, it’s all too easy to fall into a Facebook or Twitter rabbit hole. These distractions are so frequent and disrupting that many people in our study described making special arrangements that would let them work uninterrupted. Some went into the office an hour early or stayed late one evening. Others found a quiet conference room, put on headphones for a few hours, or left their smartphone behind.
What’s preventing you from focusing? All of the above? You need to find a tactic to focus that works for you and that addresses the source of the problem.Pushing back at your boss is quite different from trying to resist temptations.
This is what I did to write my book, Great At Work. Knowing how hard writing is for me, and how tempted I am to procrastinate, I bought a laptop and got rid of the Internet browser, e-mail, and the instant messaging app–everything except for Microsoft Word. I carried this barren computer to Starbucks for two-hour intervals. Day after day, I sat there with my coffee. I felt a terrible urge to check my email—but I couldn’t. So I kept writing. Before long, I had completed a manuscript.
Author of Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More (Simon and Schuster) and a management professor at University of California, Berkeley.
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