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Focus makes us human, don't give it away

Unlike animals, humans possess executive attention that helps us stay focused. It’s not easy and requires lots of training, but without deep focus we cannot perform any challenging intellectual activity, nor can we create or execute complex plans.

But think about your typical workday… how often are you interrupted, either by an email… or a colleague just double checking via Whatsapp if you’ve received their email?

Researcher Gloria Mark says that an average worker interrupts themselves every 40 seconds. Half of these interruptions come through technology, while the other half we cause by self-interrupting, a skill we ‘learn’ thanks to using digital devices.

Unlike computers, humans don’t switch well from one task to another. At the workplace the cost of this attention switching means higher workload, more stress, frustration & mental effort, what Gloria Mark calls ‘invisible work’. Hybrid work doesn’t help focus, either – hybrid workers are 2.54 times more likely to experience digital distractions, according to Gartner.

Task switching also lowers your intellectual abilities. In fact, the mere presence of a smartphone already depletes problem solving skills. When in one experiment participants were asked to put their phones in different locations and solve puzzles to test their intelligence level, the group that consistently performed better was the one that had their phones in the other room.

The lack of focus also costs us ability to set and pursue long-term goals. To achieve a goal, you need to block out all distractions, otherwise we risk spreading ourselves thinly. Did it ever happen to delay an important intention, like going to the gym or sitting down to learn playing the guitar, because you chose to swipe Instagram, just for 5 minute … and 2 hours later you are still doing it?

Lack of focus also impacts children’s development. When a parent is physically present with a child, but constantly distracted by their devices, kids are more likely to have delayed speech and other brain development. Because children mimic adult behaviour, and from early age unlearn to focus.

But do we teach kids the importance of focus, or do we feed them bit-sized learning content, degrading their focus and memory even further? Do we encourage focus in employees, or do we overload them with endless chats and emails and instead of giving them thinking space, use workplace surveillance software that tracks when and what they are doing? We not only leverage our human abilities to think deeply, but we also create super computers that are already capable give financial advice, analyze probability of having a particular form of cancer or predict the next likely place of fire.

What if you started prioritizing deep focus and attention – in your private life, at work or children’s school?

Imagine you start blocking regular deep focus hours in your calendar to work or study, without endless Zoom meetings, or choose to check emails only periodically – what difference would that make?

Imagine a meeting, where others aren’t looking at computers or phones when you are speaking, because focus and real connection are valued. Would you like to work in such a team?

Or your manager being assessed based on how much focus employees have, not how fast they respond to an email.

Imagine that schools created conditions for students to support focus. What if each parent started questioning their school policy around devices? Imagine that we educated children and employees to recognize and value peak concentration moments and make sure they aren’t distracted during them, instead of using software to paternalistically monitor them?

Ability to stay focused and achieve goals is what differentiates humans from animals. How you can bring in more focus into your life? Please, comment below.

P.S. If you are a helping professional or want to coach people to stay more focused in spite of digital distractions, check out our Digital wellbeing intro coaching kit, which you can use with your clients to introduce them to the idea of a more focused life.

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