Time to Focus: 2 Research-Backed Ways to Get More Done

1. Stop Multitasking (Seriously. Stop it.)

When we multitask, what we’re really doing is “task-switching,” according to psychologist Guy Winch, PhD and author. When it comes to a human’s capacity to pay attention, we are either narrowing our attention to focus on details, such as when we study for an exam, or we are skimming the pages to search for key points at the expense of missing those important details.

After nearly two decades of research on the effects and inefficiencies of multitasking, it has become clear that the human brain is not equipped to perform two tasks at the same time. 

While it is possible to perform two tasks at once, such as walking and chewing gum, it is not possible to perform two cognitive tasks at once, as the brain is not wired to perform multiple tasks at the same time. Our task-switching causes our brain to use resources that could otherwise be used to focus on a single task over a longer period of time. In short, multitasking, or task-switching—its more appropriate term—causes us to be less productive.

The solution? Turn off social media and email alerts, silence your phone, and focus on a single task at a time. Close the door to your office and even put a sign on the door to prevent unexpected interruptions if need be. After focusing on a single task for about thirty minutes without any interruptions, you’ll feel yourself start to get “in the zone,” and that’s where you want to stay until the task is completed (or you’ve made significant progress.)

You’ll get there faster if you refuse to do too many things at once.

2. Manage Your Energy (And that means more than sleeping.)

While focusing on one task at a time is beneficial for productivity, so is managing your energy.

Unfortunately, people often get burned out from working long hours, not feeling a sense of purpose in their work, not getting the mental rest they need, and, as a result, not having a positive perspective on work and life balance.

A study looked at employees at 12 branches of the Wachovia Bank in southern New Jersey to study all dimensions of energy: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. They compared their productivity to employees at nearby Wachovia banks not going through the training, and the overall findings were significant. The experimental group’s revenues from deposits exceeded the control group’s gain by 20 percentage points. In addition, participants in the experimental group reported overwhelmingly positive effects from the training.

Below are the dimensions of energy that the study focused on:

Physical energy – This meant scheduling and planning out simple behavior modifications for improving health throughout the week, even if they seemed time-consuming and counter-productive. This actually improves energy levels, and thus productivity levels.

Mental energy – The optimum time frame for focusing on one task at a time, and perhaps even scheduling it throughout the day, is 90 to 120 minutes. After that, participants took a brief break from work doing something they enjoyed – a walk, a phone call with a loved one, or a cup of coffee.

Emotional energy – This is about becoming aware of your emotions and emotional triggers. Most people feel more productive when feeling positive energy, and while positive energy can’t last forever, we can take control of our emotions rather than suppressing them. Try deep breathing exercisesexpress gratitude to others in meaningful ways, and change your perspective.

Spiritual energy – Finding a sense of meaning and purpose typically leads to more positive energy, and thus, more productivity. Therefore, it is beneficial to practice allocating time to tasks that give more meaning to your work and life.

Wrap up: If you want faster, better-quality work, allow yourself to focus on one task at a time, and make sure you’re not neglecting your energy levels. These strategies may seem counter-intuitive since multitasking and overworking make it seem like you’re getting more done, but the research clearly supports a steady, balanced approach to achieving your goals is the way to go.