‘Concentration’ can mean a number of different things, but for the purposes of this blog, let’s (try to) focus on what it means for us in the workplace. Don’t know about you, but we relish those times when we can put our heads down, keep the outside world ‘out’, and focus all of our attention on our work with no distractions whatsoever – sounds like a bit of a fantasy, right?
In reality, this can be rather difficult. Emails, phone calls, Skype – there are so many different ways for the outside world to claw its way back in. And don’t get us wrong – that sometimes is the ‘job’, especially when you’re working as part of a team. But how good is this all for your concentration and, more importantly, your productivity?
So, what actually is attention?
In an article for Psychology Today, Alex Pang developed a series of simple sketches to illustrate the different types of attention we use at work:1
Pang AS. “So, What Is Distraction Again?” 2016. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/rest/201602/so-what-is-distraction-again.1
Directed attention, the ultimate goal, describes a state of total concentration where you’re able to fulfil three main criteria:
- You are focused on a task
- Your focus is under your control
- You are focused on the correct thing at the correct time.
Hijacked attention describes the state experienced when you fail to fulfil criteria 2 and 3, meaning you are focused on a task, but your focus is not under your control and you are not focused on the right thing.
Aimless attention is when you meet none of the above three criteria, often as a result of cognitive overload and when too many different things are competing for your attention at the same time (we’ve all definitely been there).
What’s the cause of our ‘aimless attention’?
A number of external influences are responsible for hijacking our attention, and certain environments, including open-plan office spaces. Open-plan offices are great for encouraging collaboration and teamwork, but are not always a natural companion for concentration. Noise (or lack of ‘acoustic privacy’) has been described as the primary source of discomfort in a study of open-plan office employees.2
As harmless (and enjoyable) as ‘office chat’ may be, it can, at times, be quite intrusive and has been shown to correlate with a decreased ability to perform tasks that require working memory.3 The combination of compromised acoustic and visual privacy associated with workplace ‘openness’ is also linked to problems with concentration, worse performance outcomes and (perhaps most surprisingly), less creativity, than more ‘closed’ office spaces.4
However, ‘closed’ office spaces, like the ones we work in when we’re at home, are certainly not free from distraction pitfalls. Life admin – involving everything from grocery shopping, planning meals, laundry, cleaning and sorting out that damned internet connection – seems to force its way into our minds even more so when we’re working from home, like some sort of needy child who wants your attention. Speaking of which – children. And family members. Possibly the biggest culprits when it comes to distracting you from your work (particularly given the current climate. Parents currently working from home and simultaneously trying to home school – we salute you).
And sometimes it’s not as simple as putting your distraction down to ‘external’ stimuli that you can shut out. We’ve all had those days when a seemingly never-ending influx of emails means we’re constantly having to reprioritise and switch tasks, which, in addition to leaving us feeling frazzled, also leaves us unable to focus.
Multi-tasking requires two primary processes: ‘goal shifting’, where you decide to do one thing instead of another, and ‘role activation’, where the rules of one task are changed to the rules for the new task.5 This wouldn’t be too big of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that it takes us an estimated 23 minutes and 15 seconds (very precise estimate here!) to role ‘re‑activate’ and get back to a task after your attention has been hijacked.
Reigning in the distractions
We all know that 100% focus 100% of the time is an unrealistic goal, so how can we try to reign the distractions in to make our ‘aimless’ attention become more ‘directed’?
You don’t want to ban any non-work-related chat from the office – it wouldn’t work, your colleagues would hate it, and let’s face it, it can actually be a great way to de-stress and build comradery. Similarly, one of the major benefits of working from home is precisely that you have the flexibility to fit your life admin in and around your work. Instead, we think it’s about finding tips and tricks that work for you, with an emphasis on the you – everyone is different and everyone responds differently to different stimuli. Some people can only work in total silence, while others need to have music in the background to help them focus. With that in mind, here is a very short list of our top tips that we find work for us:
- Headphones. Even if you’re not the type of person who likes to listen to music when working, the simple act of putting headphones on (or earphones in) feels like you’re blocking the rest of the world out. Not only that, but it can also serve as a bit of a physical barrier. If someone wants your attention, rather than simply calling your name out across the office, they’ll have to get up and come over to you to get your attention. Which may make them think twice about distracting you in the first place. Win-win.
- Having a dedicated workspace. This is more for the ones who work from home on a regular basis, but, if you’re able to, then having a specific space for working can do wonders for your mindset and helping you to focus. In an ideal world, this would be separate from any other household members, but even having a specific table, chair or cushion can do the trick.
- Take a break (sounds a bit counterintuitive at first). Trying to focus or even refocus can feel like a battle at times, so if you do feel your mind beginning to wander or drift, or you’re feeling overwhelmed by the constant emails and shifting of priorities – stop. Breathe. Get up from your desk and walk away from your laptop. Even if it’s the 20 steps to the kitchen to make yourself a cup of tea, or 10 steps to the window to help clear your mind and get some fresh air. Forcing yourself to take that tiny break can help to reset the mind and bring some fresh perspective.
You be you
There is no one rule for everyone – it’s about finding out what works for you. But remember this. If you’re comfortable with your working environment then you are more likely to generate better work and enjoy your job.6
Our working world has changed vastly over the past couple of months, and is set to change again as people slowly begin to trickle back to their offices. If you’re set to return to the office in the coming weeks or months, try to bring a touch of home comfort to your space and, of course, your headphones – don’t forget your headphones.
Or if you are continuing to work from home, craft yourself a ‘work-zone’. Working life has changed for the better. Enjoy it.
- Pang AS. “So, What Is Distraction Again?” 2016. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/rest/201602/so-what-is-distraction-again. Accessed: May 2020.
- Perrin Jegen N, Chevret P. Effect of Noise on Comfort in Open-Plan Offices: Application of an Assessment Questionnaire. Ergonomics. 2017;60(1):6–17.
- Jahncke H. Open-plan Office Noise: The Susceptibility and Suitability of Different Cognitive Tasks for Work in the Presence of Irrelevant Speech. Noise Health. 2012;14(61):315–320.
- Węziak-Białowolska D, Dong Z, McNeely E. Turning the Mirror on the Architects: A Study of the Open-Plan Office and Work Behaviors at an Architectural Company. Front Psychol. 2018;9:2178.
- Rubinstein JS, Meyer DE, Evans, JE. Executive control of cognitive processes in task switching. J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 2001;27(4):763–797.
- Hoskins D. Employees Perform Better When They Can Control Their Space. 2014. Available at: https://hbr.org/2014/01/employees-perform-better-when-they-can-control-their-space. Accessed: May 2020.
- Heeris J. Programmer Interrupted [pdf]. 2013. Available at: https://heeris.id.au/trinkets/ProgrammerInterrupted.pdf. Accessed: May 2020.