Businessweek Archives

Concentration Conundrum


“There’s no time to concentrate” is the common cry among 99% of my clients. And that’s true. We live in a staccato work environment. Tasks that require short bursts of attention get handled (e.g.. quick phone calls, emails, crises, spontaneous conversations with clients and co-workers). But legato work, responsibilities that require more thought and deliberation, are nearly impossible to find time for (e.g. strategic planning, writing, analysis, and idea development). Yet, it’s in the legato work that we make our most unique, significant contribution to the workplace, and how our companies stay competitive.

A wonderful piece in Sunday’s NY Times called Shifting Careers: Fighting a War Against Distraction succinctly summarized the current research on the cost of interruptions and distractions. The decline of our ability to concentrate is real—a marketing team I recently delivered a seminar to felt completely lost with what to do with the hour of quiet time we created for their department.

The most direct way to regain your ability to focus is a technique I’ve been teaching clients for years—-completely change your relationship to email.

Why focus on email? Email has played the leading role in the development of our staccato work environment—where everything has to be “now, now, now!” We assume people expect immediate responses, because an immediate response seems possible. But just because messages arrive instantaneously doesn’t mean that you have to respond immediately. I have clients who consciously CHOOSE to WAIT before hitting reply, even if they see an email right away, to avoid training people to think they are always available.

Years ago, it may have been impressive to instantly get back someone the moment they sent a request. But today—if someone answers your email within minutes of your sending it—what is your reaction? Don’t you wonder why that person is sitting there with nothing more important to do? Not everything is urgent, and not everything is email—-some projects, requests, decisions and correspondences take time and thought.


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