“When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.” – Confucius (Chinese philosopher and politician)
In today’s world of chasing the perfect productivity paradigms and aiming for bigger goals, we’ve all started out seeking laser-sharp focus abilities to cut through all distractions and stay at a task for longer durations. However, the exceeding demands of productivity in today’s world lead to the expectation of focus and concentration beyond the human mind’s capabilities.
There’s a catch with aiming for such unrealistic levels of focus. You might push through and accomplish a goal with this technique. As a consequence, the consistency falters over time. This “laser-sharp” focus eventually cuts through your own productivity and, results in burnout and diminishes overall well-being.
This does not mean that the goals are unattainable, rather, there is a dire need of adjustment in the way we channel our focus and concentration to achieve our goals. My tip to maintain focus for a longer time is in the context of completing larger goals, especially when you need to deliver multiple things.
One probable solution to this challenge could be taking on a single task at a time for a longer stretch and finishing it before moving on to the next. However, as counterintuitive it may seem, this technique actually reduces productivity and is not compatible with the human capacity to focus.
Scientific and engineering perspective
The human mind cannot concentrate on a single thing for a long time. Several research studies in the field of neuroscience indicate that due to the natural variations in cycles of alertness, the human brain can concentrate for no longer than 90 minutes on a single task without needing a break (Williams, 2017).
If a goal is too big or takes too long to finish, it is hard to focus in its entirety and you may lose interest in a socially distractive world.
The question then arises – how to accomplish multiple tasks at a time without burning out? This is where we can borrow some lessons from the machines that have been created by the human mind to make our tasks easier.
The multitasking myth
The answer to it lies pretty close to us – a computer microprocessor. To the user, it may still seem as if the processor is doing several things simultaneously and can do more extensive computations. In reality, it uses the concept called preemptive scheduling. Several calculated processes are happening in quick succession:
- The microprocessor splits each task into multiple threads.
- It then works on one thread at a time for a very short while.
- The microprocessor then switches to another high-priority thread that might have more urgency or might need attention for a very short while.
This breakdown of the functioning of the microprocessor gives us valuable insight that can be applied to your own bigger goals, multiple deliverables and working with the human mind’s capacities, instead of going against it.
Just as the microprocessor tackles one task at a time but switches in quick succession, the same way our brain switches between tasks instead of multitasking. Kendra Cherry (2017), author and educator, explains how the “brain isn’t wired to work on multiple complex tasks simultaneously. We perform much better when we focus fully on one thing at a time.”
Quick tips to focus better and accomplish bigger goals
Borrowing from the intelligent functioning of a microprocessor and bringing in insights about the functioning of the human brain, I recommend the following quick tips to achieve your goals faster and bring that success into your life:
1. Break down a task into smaller chunks
The constraints of the human brain’s capacity to focus on a single task for beyond 90 minutes suggest the need to break a bigger goal into smaller chunks of achievable tasks within a particular time duration.
“Most impossible goals can be met simply by breaking them down into bite-size chunks, writing them down, believing them, and going full speed ahead as if they were routine,” says Don Lancaster, American author, inventor, and microcomputer pioneer. There are several ways of breaking down a task into smaller chunks. One way of doing so is based on the phases or the logical progression of the task from one step to another.
For instance, if your bigger goal is to give a presentation, the smaller chunks could include brainstorming, researching the content, converting the content into presentation slides, refining the presentation, rehearsing and so on.
2. Focus on one task a time
“Your conscious brain cannot multitask. If I’m speaking to you and checking my iPhone at the same time, I’m doing neither. This is why our society is frazzled; this misconception that we can consciously do more than one thing at a time effectively,” says Deepak Chopra, Indian-American author and alternative medicine advocate.
Instead of attempting to multitask and in turn, reducing your productivity, aim to focus on one small chunk of a task or activity at a time that could be finished in a reasonably small time. That gives you the ability to keep several threads open and switch among them when you lose focus on one.
For instance, instead of attempting to also answer your emails while you research about the content for your presentation, practice time-blocking to set aside time to get back to the emails. This will prevent loss of productivity as well the errors between the two tasks you’re attempting to accomplish simultaneously.
3. Prioritize the threads of tasks
Each thread is an activity for a specific project. When there is a call from another high-priority thread, you could pause working on the current thread but must take note of where you left it. You could return to the current thread after addressing the most urgent call.
For instance, if you get a call from your manager regarding an urgent client that needs to be attended to immediately, shift to that thread of task, knowing that you will return to the preparation of your presentation and adjust to the pressing demands.
“Set aside time to plan how you will spend your time. Think about what’s most important. Then do those things first,” says Frank Bettger, American self-help author. While many things may seem incomplete at a given time, in due course of time, most of them will progress toward completion.
With the increasing pressure in our professional lives to accomplish goals that are lined up one after the other, it’s easy to fall into the trap of unhelpful strategies for improving focus. It’s paramount to understand your mind’s limitations and capacities, and work with those instead of against them to accomplish all your goals.
With just these few changes in how you approach your goals, you too can get there faster! The magic happens when you start to finish off the projects one after another. It can surprise the people around you with a blast of a series of big outcomes.
Cherry, K. (2021, July 30). How Multitasking Affects Productivity and Brain Health. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/multitasking-2795003
Williams, C. (2017, September 25). Five ways science can improve your focus. BBC Worklife. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20170925-the-surprising-tricks-to-help-you-focus-at-work
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