Focus to Work Effectively Online


In preparing for a recent overnight visit from long-time friends, I was reminded of the French phrase mise en place—establishing intent and work plan by putting the food items and equipment in place in the kitchen prior to cooking. Since my brigade de cuisine is mainly me, I had to work ahead of their arrival and line up tools and ingredients to make the final preparations for dinner go fast, look easy, and still have time to socialize. My husband and I succeeded. The four of us enjoyed our time together, our friends loved the food, and the leftovers became our “meal of the week,” i.e., we kept eating until it was all gone!

This experience made me think of mise en place in regard to working online. How do we ensure that we have the right readiness–whether it is mindset, clarity of purpose, space, and equipment to accomplish the things most important to us?

When the mind is ready, the opportunity to learn appears.

Before Desk

My Desk Before Focus

Leo Babauta came to my rescue. His Focus: Simplicity in the Age of Distraction ebook, free and available here, beautifully captures the challenges of our current time:

“…we have distractions coming from every direction. In front of us is the computer, with email notifications and other notifications of all kinds. Then there’s the addicting lure of the browser, which contains not only an endless amount of reading material that can be a black hole into which we never escape, but unlimited opportunities for shopping, for chatting with other people, for gossip and news and lurid photos and so much more. All the while, several new emails have come in, waiting for a quick response. Several programs are open at once, each of them with tasks to complete. Several people would like to chat, dividing our attention even further. “

What are we to do?

The answer is obvious, is it not? REMOVE THE DISTRACTIONS! How? The first is clearing off our desk, the wall, and floor in our physical work space. Babauta, a zen practitioner, wishes for us to direct our mental energy, and not get lost in the siren call of 1,000,001 other things floating on our desk or in our mind, workplace, and internet. Naturally perhaps, the second step, which may be much harder for many of us, is to turn off email AND notifications from Facebook, Twitter, IM, Instagram, ScoopIt, Google+, mobile phone, etc. and put them in airplane only mode for most of our work day. The rationale–well justified–for taking these two HUGE yet doable steps is explained in the ebook.

My Desk After Focus

My Desk After Focus

Babauta also recommends refocusing rituals when we start our work and after we take breaks every hour for deliberate distractions to relax, reflect, walk around, or stimulate different senses so that when we come back to our task, we are better able to re-engage wholeheartedly.

How do we know what our focus should be?

Babauta simplifies our actions into three steps:

Step 1: Find Something Amazing to work on

Step 2: Clear away everything else

Step 3: Focus on that Something Amazing

He recommends that we should act because of passion. And when we find ourselves going uphill, change course. He acknowledges that when we dread, procrastinate, or hate what we are doing, we need to stop and ask ourselves why. Babauta asserts there must be

Upcoming E-vent

Upcoming E-vent

a reason that we delay or switch to other activities, such as the social media distractions we complain about otherwise, and not pursue the most important tasks before us.

“…stop yourself when you find yourself struggling, and just pause. Be present, sensing your breath, and then everything around you. See the situation with some objectivity, instead of fleeing from it blindly. Carefully consider your options — all of them. And then respond to the situation mindfully and with the appropriate response — not an overreaction.”

Finally, Babauta’s emphasis on single-tasking—working on creation tasks sequentially—explained why jumping back and forth between tasks slows me down when I leave one line of thought to develop another and then try to reconnect with my original focus. An article in McKinsey Quarterly, January 2011 by Derek Dean and Caroline Webb further backs single-tasking saying “The root of the problem is that our brain is best designed to focus on one task at a time. When we switch between tasks, especially complex ones, we become startlingly less efficient.”

Babauta’s ebook and the McKinsey article offer a terrific ROI–recommendations grounded in practice and research for mise en place—to organize your most important work to get it done on your schedule. I’m trying to follow their recommendations. What about you? What steps do you take to ready yourself for serious work? How do you find your focus? How do you maintain it in this age of distraction?

5 replies
  1. Doris Reeves-Lipscomb
    Doris Reeves-Lipscomb says:

    Dianne, thanks for sharing your views. We appreciate the excerpt from Science magazine that you added on why multitasking can go only so far for most of us, especially when we are working with complex ideas. I’m relieved to know that my brain is not so different from anyone else’s except for … maybe experienced airplane pilots. They supposedly have superior situational awareness and processing skills that enable them to deal with emergencies.

    What are some of the ways you simplify in order to maintain your focus and production in this age of distraction?

  2. Dianne Reeves
    Dianne Reeves says:

    The myth of multi-tasking as a means of overall accomplishment is deceptive! For less important tasks, perhaps the distraction is not as apparent. For large projects requiring concentration and deep focus, multi-tasking diminishes the rate of return for each major project.with interruptions in our thought processes. This is not the same for “taking a break” and taking a walk or physically removing yourself from your project to refresh and regroup.
    For those of us who are online much of the day, I agree that to reduce the number of plugs that we have “on” is helpful.
    Here is a great short article from Science about multitasking and the brain:

    Multitasking Splits the Brain

    15 April 2010 3:18 pm

    When the brain tries to do two things at once, it divides and conquers, dedicating one-half of our gray matter to each task, new research shows. But forget about adding another mentally taxing task: The work also reveals that the brain can’t effectively handle more than two complex, related activities at once.

    When it comes to task management, the prefrontal cortex is key. The anterior part of this brain region forms the goal or intention—for example, “I want that cookie”—and the posterior prefrontal cortex talks to the rest of the brain so that your hand reaches toward the cookie jar and your mind knows whether you have the cookie. So what happens when another goal enters the mix?

    To find out, neuroscientists Etienne Koechlin and Sylvain Charron of the French biomedical research agency INSERM in Paris turned to functional magnetic resonance imaging, which measures changes in brain activity. They monitored 16 women and 16 men, aged 19 to 32, as they performed a complicated letter-matching task. Shown letters pulled at random from the word “tablet” on a computer screen, volunteers had to determine whether two successive letters (either all lowercase or all uppercase) appeared in the same order as they do in the word. To multitask, they also had to deal with uppercase and lowercase letters at the same time, matching them to either all uppercase or all lowercase words. The volunteers received a small amount of money if they performed well.

    As the team expected, working on a single letter-matching task at a time activated both sides of the volunteers’ brains, setting off the anterior-to-posterior chain of command to get the job done. But as soon as the volunteers took on the second task, their brains split the labor: activity in the left side of the prefrontal cortex corresponded to one task while the right side took over the other task. Each side of the brain worked independently, pursuing its own goal and monetary reward, the team reports in tomorrow’s issue of Science.

    Koechlin says the results suggest that the brain can’t efficiently juggle more than two tasks because it has only two hemispheres available for task management. Indeed, when the team asked another 16 volunteers to match letters of the same color while completing the same two letter-matching tasks the first group tackled, the triple-task jugglers consistently forgot one of their tasks. They also made three times as many errors as they did while dual-tasking.

    “In terms of everyday behavior, you can cook and talk on the phone at the same time,” Koechlin explains. “The problem arises when you pursue three goals at the same time. Your prefrontal cortex will always discard one.”

    Neuroscientist Scott Huettel of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, isn’t convinced of the two-task limit on human multitasking ability. “This shows there are conditions in which you can’t add a third task, but it depends on the type of task and whether it draws on other parts of the brain,” he says.

    For example, people are remarkably good at eating while doing other things, he says, because the practiced motor skills involved in eating don’t overlap too heavily with those that interpret visual cues, control language, or run other complex processes. Nevertheless, he finds the dual-task division of labor “novel and exciting.” The study illustrates our striking lack of knowledge about how the brain’s hemispheres organize themselves, he says. “I wouldn’t have bet multitasking worked this way.”

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] certainly part of the infotention and mindfulness that we have advocated in our blog posts here and here for knowledge workers to develop. Blogging regularly also clarifies your thinking and helps you […]

  2. […] 2014 we discussed in this blog how to maintain focus by punctuating our work with regular, short breaks.  A specific method for […]

  3. […] 2014 we discussed in this blog how to maintain focus by punctuating our work with regular, short breaks.  A specific method for […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply