Focus, uninterrupted

I work with athletes to improve their performances in their sport. An element of this which seems to becoming increasingly important is minimising the number of stressors and hassles they feel they need to cope with. A common stressor is their difficulty in focusing on anything (sport, school or work) because of constant interruptions they feel they need to deal with. Most of these interruptions come from technology.

I am undecided if technology is amazing for athletes – or a hinderance. There are ways it can really help us in our sport; tracking what we do on GPS, allowing easy access to course routes, providing video clips of our competitors, even simply allowing us to research new ideas, training plans or performance advice quickly. But it can also make us unhappy when we can no longer just go for an easy run or ride without worrying about how followers will judge the figures we post, when we can never switch off as our phones bombard us with notifications and reminders of other’s training. A quick glance at @stravawankers on twitter will highlight how seriously many people take their technology when training.

In its place technology can be amazing. But with technology being with us everywhere (the majority of people reading this will be on a mobile or tablet) that place may have expanded too much. And that is when the troubles come. Chatting to a friend and an alert pops up, trying to write a report for work and a dozen emails arrive throughout it – probably with some annoying sound attached.

Some great research has found that these distractions are harming our ability to perform:

  • The Carnegie Mellon Human-Computer Interaction Lab has found multi-tasking is bad for us as we end up doing each thing at a worse level than if they were done with full focus. The constant switching between tasks means we not only do more of our tasks poorly but that we also waste time trying to get back into each thing.
  • Research in California from Gloria Mark found it takes 25 minutes to get full focus back after an interruption, and that on average, office workers are interrupted every 11 minutes.
  • All of these interruptions and requirements to switch come at neurobiological cost says neuroscientist Daniel Levitin as they only deplete our mental resources and mean our brain stores information and memories in the wrong places. He says that our brains use glucose as a fuel, and every time you switch tasks more glucose gets burned. Over the day this excess use of glucose will make you feel tired and mentally depleted. When you get into this state you start releasing cortisol, the stress hormone which puts your body into a stress state. While your body focuses on trying to protect itself from whatever is trying to attack it, it shuts down your higher cognitive thinking and becomes unable to think clearly or solve complex problems.
  • One of the most interesting facts from his recent book on how to think straight in the age of information overload is that we now take in five times more information each day that we did 25 years ago. This is nine DVD’s worth on information a day!
  • Finally, research from professor of Psychology Glenn Wilson has found that when you are trying to focus on something, simply knowing that there is an unread message in your email inbox can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points.

How can we help ourselves focus?

  1. Understand how often you get interrupted and whether the interruptions are from others or yourself.
  2. If you have a big project to work on or know you need to focus hard on something find somewhere private to work. Switch off all devices. Put an out of office on your email and whatsapp saying you’ll reply later. Send your phone to answerphone. Tell those who interrupt the most that you need time to focus. And leave your phone elsewhere so you don’t get tempted to switch it on.
  3. If you know the interruptions are self-inflicted (especially phone checking) then decide on a goal to minimise them. How many times a day would it be acceptable to you to check your phone? Would you feel comfortable having a permanent out of office message saying you check your emails twice a day and you’ll respond to their email next time you check? Make a plan and tell someone else about your plan so they’ll help you stay on track.

Two immediate actions:

  1. Turn off your notifications: facebook, twitter, whatsapp, intstagram. Check when you want but if something was truly urgent they would phone.
  2. Get self-aware of just how often you check your phone. There are some apps to do this:
    1. Moment – tells you how many minutes you spend on your phone each day and lets you limit the time you are on it.
    2. Checky – tells you how many times a day you check your phone. If you want to shame yourself into using it less you can share your scores on twitter. It also shows you where you check your phone which can help you change your behaviours. If you check it for 30 minutes on the tube twice a day but complain you never have any time to read you may realise you could replace that time with a book.

I’m feeling brave so I’m off to download Checky onto my phone. Gulp…

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