A November 15 article in the New York Times cited a recent study from Harvard happiness experts Daniel Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth, who used an iPhone app to contact some 2,200 individuals and get a total of roughly 250,000 replies as to how each person was feeling and what they were doing at the time they were contacted. Not surprisingly, the people who reported the highest levels of pleasure were having sex when contacted (not sure what they felt after being interrupted). And they were highly focused on what they were doing, at least prior to the interruption.
The surprise came from the 99.5% of people who were not having sex when contacted. Nearly half of them reported that their minds were wandering when contacted; in other words, half of them were not focused on whatever it was they were doing. Those who were focused reported significantly higher levels of happiness than those who were not.
As an expert on ways to achieve peak performance as well as expert on attention deficit disorder (A.D.D.) and the crazy busy pace of modern life, this study caught my eye. So...unless we're having sex, half of us at any given moment are not focused on what we're doing. Not only does such lack of focus lead to unhappiness, it also leads to errors, wasted time, miscommunication and misunderstanding, diminished productivity, and who-knows-how-much global loss of income (there'll be a study on that soon, no doubt).
All of which cries out the question, why such rampant lack of focus? And what remedies can we apply?
One might suggest we all take Ritalin for our culturally-induced A.D.D., but not only would that be medically inadvisable, we're pretty much already doing the equivalent. Just look at the lines at Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts, not to mention the sales of Mountain Dew, Red Bull, and the rest.
But why such lack of focus in need of so much caffeine? If Killingsworth and Gilbert had done their study 100 years ago, or even 20 years ago, would they have found the same results? At any given moment, have half the minds in the USA — or the world — always been wandering? Or is this a new phenomenon?
My money — and available research — says it's new, or at least it's grown worse of late. 30% to 40% of people's time in the workplace is spent tending to unplanned interruptions, and then reconstituting the mental focus the interruption caused. I'm sure that was not the case 20 years ago simply because the tools of interruption were not so plentiful. And all the distraction has created blocks in thinking and feeling deeply. We're being superficialized and sound-bit.
Through my lectures, I've had the chance to ask thousands of people, "Where do you do your best thinking?" Rarely do I get the response, "At work." The most common response? "In the shower." The shower is one of the last places left where we're not often interrupted. But who knows, maybe the next hot gift item will be a waterproof BlackBerry.
If technology lures us to lose focus, I also believe a deeper conflict is at work, one that indeed was in force 100 years ago, and 1000 years ago as well. It is the paradox that even though we are never so happy or productive as when we are intensely focused in a given activity, we also avoid and resist entering such focused states. But why? If modern research demonstrates the great rewards of focus, why would anyone resist it?
Simple physics. Nature tends toward disorder. Focus imposes order. So focus requires energy. It requires work. It can hurt. People often avoid pain and work. We humans have mixed feelings about expending energy, even if we know it will bring us pleasure. For example, in the Harvard study, the second-rated activity in terms of happiness was physical exercise. And how many of us avoid that?
So what's my solution to the problem of fractured focus?
First, recreate boundaries that technology has broken down so that you have some time actually to think when you're at work. Turn it off. Close the door. Don't jump online the minute you feel frustrated or vexed. Push on. Grapple with the problem. Go deep. Persist. Don't allow intrusions into the precious process of creative thought.
Second, try to spend as much time as you can at the intersection of three spheres: what you're good at, what you like to do, and what adds value to the world, i.e., what someone is willing to pay you to do. At the intersection of those spheres lies a land of joy and productivity that can successfully compete with force of entropy, of disorder, that tilts us all toward lassitude. When you infuse work with pleasure, then you want to work, even though it hurts at times.
So, since you can't have sex all day, and no one can exercise for much more than an hour or maybe two, pick tasks that you have skill at, that you like to do, and then set the bar just a little higher each day. Focus will follow. And with focus, you'll gain both pleasure and success.
Edward Hallowell, MD, is a psychiatrist, served as an instructor at Harvard Medical School for 20 years, and is the director of the Hallowell Centers in New York City and Sudbury, Massachusetts. He has written two popular Harvard Business Review articles and authored eighteen books, including the national bestseller Driven to Distraction, that have sold millions of copies. His forthcoming book, Shine, is due out in January from Harvard Business Review Press.
by Edward Hallowell | 12:13 PM November 18, 2010
More blog posts by Edward Hallowell
More on: Managing yourself, Technology, Work life balance
Edward Hallowell, MD, is a psychiatrist, served as an instructor at Harvard Medical School for 20 years, and is the director of the Hallowell Centers in New York City and Sudbury, Massachusetts.