How Fractured Focus Steals Your Productivity (and How to Take it Back)

If we had to convey how to be more productive in one sentence, it would go something like this: Put the best version of yourself in charge. 

That sounds easy, but doing it requires more than simply reading another book about focus. The more we look into productivity—how to achieve it and why we keep losing it—the clearer it is that a lack of information isn’t the problem. The problem is acting on what you already know, on putting that informed and inspired version of yourself at the helm. 

We all have habits that rob us of our concentration and waste our time. To help you overcome them, we’re doing a series of posts that break down the worst of these productivity thieves and give you concrete actions to help you do more with less effort.

What exactly is fractured focus?

Fractured focus is the division of your attention across multiple tasks. And nothing divides our attention quite like the internet. 

Let’s establish that we love the internet. No amount of trolling, or unprovoked DDoS attacks, or hard-hitting exposés is going to change what’s good about the web: It’s the most powerful tool for human exchange ever created, spurring the sharing of knowledge and expression more than any other technology. Evernote exists in part to help people discover their own superpowers by capturing relevant parts of this knowledge and making them their own.

But capturing the right information means separating the signal from a ton of noise. The online attention economy incentivizes everyone, not just advertisers, to capture eyeballs and rack up quantifiable bits of engagement. Hence the steady stream of banner ads, auto-playing videos, eye-catching animations, screen-filling pop-ups, bright red notifications badges, and cheerful chimes signaling potential good news. 

The point here is not that these things are bad or wrong—just that they’re diversions

In his book, “Deep Work,” author Cal Newport points out that so-called “directed attention,” the kind of attention you use when doing intellectual work, is a finite resource. 

Like any other resource, you deplete it as you use it. And if you overuse it, it can be exhausted, making concentrated focus practically impossible until you rest and recharge.

So if your directed attention is a river, each tiny distraction (a text, a notification, a pop-up) is a rivulet that diverts part of the flow. If your only rivulet was the occasional phone call—splitting off a small slice of your attention a few times a day—not a huge problem. But chances are, you deal with a lot more than that

Think about how many distractions you experience in a day—in an hour. Does your focus resemble a wide stream with one or two tiny spurs diverging from the main source? Or is it all spurs, all thin little rivulets scattered in different directions? If you’ve ever felt like you’re always starting and restarting on a project, continually leaving it to answer email or check social media, never able to really dig in and make progress, then fractured focus might be a problem.

Author Nicholas Carr describes this problem in his book “The Shallows.” He explores the growing consensus among brain researchers that the kind of constant distraction we get from the web fragments our thinking, making it harder for us to stay on task. According to Carr, “The Net’s cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively.”

What can you do about it?

If you’ll indulge us in one last grandiose water metaphor, there’s some good news: Your focus is not evaporating into thin air, it’s just deviating from your most important work. 

Here are four ways to take your focus back and pay attention to what’s important:

  1. Do your more mentally demanding tasks early in the work day. If you have to fire off a couple quick emails first thing in the morning, fine. But get to the focus-intensive stuff before you get sucked into a string of shallower low-intensity activities. According to Newport, it takes very little willpower to switch from a deep focus task to a shallow focus one. But going the other direction—from shallow to deep focus—is much harder, so save tasks that don’t require a lot of mental effort for later in your day.
  2. Carve out distraction-free time. We’re not suggesting you check email just four times a year—although that’s a thing. Instead, start small, but start now. Pick a day this week to give yourself one hour with no distractions. During this time, turn off the phone, close the email application, and shut down everything that might randomly tap you on the shoulder. Choose a project you’re working on and set a goal you can realistically achieve in an hour. When the hour is up, take a look at your results. If you like what you see, can you push it to two hours next time? Maybe a few times a week?
  3. Quit distractions you don’t need. Twitter might legitimately help you accomplish something vital to your goals. If so, use it! Same goes for any social media or networking tool, but do you really need ALL of them? And do you need their notification settings dialed to full blast all the time? Probably not. Take a close look at the tools you’re using and ask yourself, “Has this tool furthered my career or life goals in the last six months?” If not, delete the app. Don’t worry, you can always add it back later, but notice if your focus improves when you streamline your tools.
  4. Go for nature walks. Enjoying a stroll in nature has been shown to help replenish your stores of attention. Why nature and not a busy city street? Cities confront you with stimuli that demand your directed attention—interpreting flashing signs, making eye contact with drivers to read their intentions, avoiding shoulder checks from people pouring out of subway exits. Assuming your nature walk is not in a particularly treacherous environment, it doesn’t make these kinds of demands. Instead, it occupies your focus just enough to prevent it from zeroing in on something else. This gives your directed attention a chance to regenerate.

Okay, but…

Some days you can’t just unplug. Some days there are sick kids, office emergencies, and need-to-know information that might arrive any second. So the inroads to your attention must, alas, stay wide open. 

For these times, we recommend a strategy from Tiago Forte, who takes a distinctly different approach from the practitioners of deep focus. Instead of trying to avoid distractions, he advocates accepting them gracefully. 

He suggests adjusting your goals so that you work in short bursts towards objectives you can achieve in small amounts of time. For example, instead of trying to write a ten-page proposal in one sitting, try to finish just the attention-grabbing opening lines or the key bit of research that supports one of the main points. 

Forte calls these easy-to-finish objectives “intermediate packets.” They aren’t completed projects. They’re pieces of projects that can be assembled later into a coherent whole. By shrinking the amount of work we bite off at a given time, we make it easier to make concrete progress, and, crucially, our jobs become a little more tolerant of distraction, a little less disturbed by the noise on the days where silence isn’t an option. 

As you explore ways to reclaim your productivity, take action early and often. And remember: The suggestions above are not steps. Don’t feel like you have to do them all or in any particular order. Take what sounds doable for you, work it into your routine and stick with it awhile. Disregard what doesn’t work and try something new, until your own path starts becoming clear.  

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