The concentration crisis

The concentration crisis
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First Published: Sun, Dec 06 2009. 10 17 PM IST

Brain drain: Being ‘always on’ (connected to others via technology) can lead to a significant drop in IQ.
Brain drain: Being ‘always on’ (connected to others via technology) can lead to a significant drop in IQ.
Updated: Sun, Dec 06 2009. 10 17 PM IST
Looking for strategies to overcome distraction and work smarter all day long? Then David Rock’s book Your Brain at Work will help you understand why your brain feels taxed and what you should do to take full advantage of your mental resources. In the following excerpt, three common problems we all face in a work setting are outlined, with the solutions the book has to offer.
The morning email overwhelm
Emily is at her desk by eight o’clock. She turns on her computer, ready to flesh out this new conference idea. But as one hundred emails download, a wave of anxiety washes over her. Thirty minutes later, Emily realizes she has responded to only twenty emails. She needs to speed up.
By the end of the hour, Emily has replied to 40 emails, but with the workday starting, there are now 120 waiting. She has no time to work on her new conference idea.
Brain drain: Being ‘always on’ (connected to others via technology) can lead to a significant drop in IQ.
What you did not know about your brain
• The most important mental processes, such as prioritizing, often take the most effort
• Some mental processes take up more energy than the others
• Every time the brain works on an idea consciously, it uses up measurable and limited resources
To survive in a work setting, try to
• Think of conscious thinking as a precious resource to conserve
• Prioritize prioritizing, as it’s an energy-intensive activity
• Save mental energy for prioritizing by avoiding other high-energy-consuming conscious activities, such as dealing with emails
• Schedule the most attention-rich tasks when you have a fresh and alert mind
• Use the brain to interact with information rather than trying to store information, by creating visuals for complex ideas and by listing projects
• Schedule blocks of time for different modes of thinking
Juggling five things at once
It’s 11am. Emily is walking to a meeting room when her cellphone rings. While trying to finish the conversation, Emily loses her way to the meeting room, gets in late, and is annoyed with herself. As the meeting starts, her BlackBerry buzzes and she is distracted.
What you did not know about your brain
• You can focus on only one conscious task at a time.
• Switching between tasks uses energy; if you do this a lot, you can make more mistakes
• If you do multiple conscious tasks at once, you will experience a big drop-off in accuracy or performance
• The only way to do two mental tasks quickly, if accuracy is important, is doing one of them at a time
• Multitasking can be done easily if you are executing embedded routines
• Catch yourself trying to do two things at once and slow down instead.
• Embed repetitive tasks where you can.
• Get decisions and thinking processes into the right order to reduce “queues” of decisions .
• If you have to multitask, combine active thinking tasks only with embedded routines.
Saying no to distractions
Your Brain at Work: By David Rock, HarperBusiness, 286 pages, $26.99.
Paul has to meet a potential client for lunch. Before the meeting he has to work out what resources he will need if he wins the project. As he tries to sketch out which suppliers might be best involved in the project, a telemarketer calls. Paul takes the call and interacting with the telemarketer takes energy. Five minutes later, he is still staring at the paper when a gentle ping announces the arrival of new emails. For a moment Paul thinks he should ignore them, but he does not.
What you did not know about your brain
• Attention is easily distracted
• Being “always on” (connected to others via technology) can drop your IQ significantly, as much as losing a night’s sleep
• Distractions exhaust the prefrontal cortex’s limited resources
To survive in a work setting, try to
• Inhibit distractions early before they take momentum
• Reduce the likelihood of internal distractions by clearing your mind before embarking on difficult tasks
• When you need to focus, remove all external distractions completely
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First Published: Sun, Dec 06 2009. 10 17 PM IST