The Impact of Focus, Concentration, and Multitasking
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The ability to focus and concentrate on a task is embedded in the cerebral cortex, and it can be improved. Focus refers to the broadness of one’s attention—the smaller the area of attention, the greater the focus. Concentration refers to the depth of attention—the ability to maintain attention on a single object or activity.
Among the factors that influence focus and concentration are the type of environment, level of stress, amount of sleep and exercise, hydration, meditation, and (according to one study) the proximity of plants.
Relation between Focus and Concentration
Focus demands a decision on what is important and what isn’t; it demands prioritization. You cannot focus if everything in your environment has equal status. Methods of ensuring focus like the S.M.a.R.T. priority matrix, succeed because they impose limits on the number of things you consider high priority and they are easy to employ.
Concentration demands that we work on the highest priority on our list, regardless of how you determined that priority, to the exclusion of all else until it is completed. Because your days are filled with multiple must-dos (from eating breakfast to attending meetings), one important step is to break major goals down into achievable tasks and to schedule the most important task during your most productive time. Committing to one task is the best insurance that it will be completed.
The Illusion of Multitasking
If you pride yourself on performing more than one task at a time, you may want to rethink that habit.
In an interesting experiment reported by the Yale School of Management, researchers gave two groups the same task, watching a video and transcribing it. They told one group that they were multitasking and the other that they were performing two separate tasks. The group that believed they were multitasking was more focused and more accurate. Yet, despite that result, the researchers cautioned against multitasking in reality; in fact the article is called The Illusion of Multitasking. The researchers assert that multitasking in “will not lead to greater performance and satisfaction.”
Multitasking causes quality to deteriorate over time and leads to errors in prioritization, as important data is missed. Moreover, switching focus from one task to another is not smooth or instantaneous; there is a lag, which you might not even perceive, while you refocus your attention. That lag accumulates into wasted time and productivity.
Building Concentration and Focus
When concentration and focus falter, take a break. Moving onto a different task or relaxing entirely for a short while restores your ability to focus and concentrate. Note that taking tasks in sequence is not the same as multitasking.
Some people thrive with background noise or music; some manage to ignore it; and others find it so distracting that they cannot concentrate at all. You know which environment works best for you, so try to create it whenever you need focus and concentration. Meditation has been found to increase concentration and focus.
If you have trouble focusing and concentrating, build your abilities a little at a time, say 5 or 10 minutes to start; take break; then come back to the task. Write down distracting thoughts, including tasks (like checking email) that can be handled later. Watch out for time bandits. Practice careful listening and looking also. As you hone your ability to listen with your whole attention and to see details in what you are looking at, you are also honing your focus and concentration.