It’s not time that’s money – it’s attention

Workplaces are not designed for our brains to focus. The harder we try the worse it becomes, says environmental psychologist Beatriz Arantes.

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In this knowledge and creative economy, workers are engaging their brains all the time. At Steelcase, we decided to plunge into new research on the brain to understand how it works and how workplaces can be designed to mitigate distractions and prime workers to better manage their attention.

Attention is a precious resource that most workers manage rather poorly. The common approach to an overwhelming amount of work is to put in more hours and focus harder. But if you look at what research is telling us about the brain, it’s clear that this approach is counterproductive.

As the amount, sources and channels of information are increasing exponentially, our response to try harder to keep up with it. Yet this strategy is doomed, because our cognitive capacities are not growing. Our ability to pay attention is limited – especially high quality attention that workers use to solve complex problems. Sustaining attention is very taxing for the brain, and so our minds will wander and refuse to cooperate, regardless of how much coffee is consumed. In order to use this precious resource effectively for the most impact, there are a few things worth knowing.

The myth of multitasking

There are certain things that can be done simultaneously but we can only hold one thing at a time in our attention. As soon as people start to keep track of multiple things they have less attention for the things that matter. Listening to the radio while folding laundry or walking while being on the phone are things people can easily multitask. However, multitasking attention is like a train driving on two tracks. It is impossible. Instead, write down your priorities and then tackle them one at a time. You’ll make faster, smarter decisions and also have the pleasure of crossing things off your list.

Mindfulness trains the brain

The world “mindfulness” often conjures up thoughts of Buddha and new age esoteric practices. However, a deluge of research in medical journals and scientific papers is demonstrating its numerous benefits for everyday people in everyday life. Simply stated, mindfulness is about being in the moment, paying attention to what you are doing and experiencing each moment. Through practice of meditation, the brain actually gets better at sustaining focus at will – multitasking has the opposite effect.

When we allow ourselves to be pulled from one distraction and solicitation to another, we train our brains to become more distractible. Try to train instead to become more mindful a little bit day by day. Take just ten minutes a day to practice focusing on your breathing and consciously bringing your mind back when it wanders. Bringing our minds back to the present is a great way to centre ourselves when we notice that we are getting overwhelmed at work. And it is worth it – being mindful is a valuable skill in today’s loud and buzzing world.

The brain’s rhythm

Attention is often equated with focus, but there are other forms of attention. Society tends to glorify sustained concentration, which is great when we already know what we want and need to get it done. However, when we’re still searching for the right direction, being in a constant state of intent focus impedes the brain from doing a lot of “back-office” processing work. We need to occasionally let the mind wander so the brain can work subconsciously with stimuli in the environment to make connections and help solve a difficult problem. New information or a conversation with a colleague can bring needed inspiration.

People tend to think of wandering attention as distractions and they are generally vilified as the culprit of being unproductive. Really, a wandering mind is actually beneficial for creativity because it allows our minds to absorb information around us and make new associations with what we already know. Mind wandering also allows for regeneration. So rather than berating yourself for being unable to power through a long report, allow yourself to build in some breaks to mull over a thought, chat with a colleague, or just stare out the window to daydream.

Breaks are beneficial

Another misunderstanding about work is that the more hours we put in at our desks, the better. In reality, we are better off taking some time to move around instead of plopping back down in our seats with another cup of coffee. Physical activity, in the long term, helps stimulate the birth of new neurons, and in the short term helps regain our ability to concentrate. We need to question our education systems and workplaces, which still demand that kids and adults alike are still all day.

We’re all different, including in the way our attention works, so there is no set rule of how long to spend on any activity. In general, the point is to establish your priorities and organize your day to be in the best environments for a given task. When focus is needed, find a place where you will be more shielded. When in need of rest or a new idea, find a place that inspires or relaxes you. And don’t forget to stretch and move throughout the day to stay fresh.

Beatriz Arantes is senior design researcher and environmental psychologist for furniture manufacturer Steelcase.

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