Sometimes the demands on managers’ time and attention makes one feel like a juggling octopus. After a while we get awfully good at multitasking. Perhaps we need to recuperate our skills of single tasking, of being able to really focus to get work done.
One study of office workers showed that they switched tasks every three or four minutes, with a 30 minute refocusing time necessary when that happens. Certainly not an efficient way to work. There’s no way to eliminate distractions but we can train our brains to focus on single tasking the way more successful managers do.
With practice, you can train your brain to switch the intensity of your focus to adjust to the task at hand, according to How Successful People Think Smart by Dr. Jill Ammon-Wexler. For example, you can switch your attention to the big picture and then zoom in on the little one. Practice shifting your attention to subdivide the components of the trees, then zoom out to look at the forest. Learning to do this will increase the brain’s abilities to focus and attend to problems at hand, instead of being susceptible to distractions.
As a manager you may not have control over interruptions but you can set some priorities and tactfully set boundaries on your thinking time. This may require you to close your office door or tell people in advance when you can or can’t be interrupted. In my work in organizations, I find most managers want to be available all the time, but that might not be efficient to complete tasks or reports on time.
The question of why we are willing to fracture our attention and risk errors remains unanswered. There is perhaps some pride in believing we are able to multitask in order to prove our cognitive prowess, but it can also be fear driven. We’re afraid of missing something, or of not being available to help someone when they interrupt us with a problem.
Managers have a lot of answers and in my experience, are also driven to help their people work better. But they can do a disservice by providing easy answers instead of challenging people to work through problems first. And maybe this contributes to their own loss of time and focus on single tasking because they’re busy helping others.