Focusing attention is the new work ethic

Focusing attention is the new work ethic

Summary: A person who works with complete focus has a major advantage over a workaholic who multi-tasks all day and responds to every interruption, according to a story by tech writer Mike Elgan on


Office Distraction

A person who works with complete focus has a major advantage over a workaholic who multi-tasks all day and responds to every interruption, according to a story by tech writer Mike Elgan on

Elgan cites New York Times columnist David Brooks, who himself cites Malcolm Gladwell in that author's latest book, Outliers: "Control of attention is the ultimate individual power. People who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them."

But in an age of real-time e-mail notifications thanks to Outlook, plus instant messages, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, personal phone calls, business phone calls, comment threads, meetings, lunch, breaking news and coworkers dropping by your office, it's growing increasingly hard to ignore distractions. In this age, distractions seek you out, Elgan writes.

As a result, productivity suffers. You end your day exhausted by work, no doubt, but have you ever thought about how much that exhaustion is the result of true work, and how much is due to the mental effort expended in addressing, or at least ignoring, distractions.?

Elgan asks just how reasonable it is to "follow" all these things:

So when does the work get done? When do entrepreneurs start and manage their businesses? When do writers write that novel? When do IT professionals keep the trains running on time? When does anyone do anything?

The need for attention, rather than hard work, is imperative, he writes:

A person who works six hours a day but with total focus has an enormous advantage over a 12-hour-per-day workaholic who's "multi-tasking" all day, answering every phone call, constantly checking Facebook and Twitter, and indulging every interruption.

To extrapolate, the classic workplace pressure of staying later than the boss isn't necessarily a good one in the plugged-in 21st century.

As it turns out, controlling your attention may help you be more productive than working hard...and addressing everything.

What do you think?

Topics: Mobility, Collaboration, Telcos

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • agreed.

    I would agree. When we become jacks of all trades, we become masters of none. We've invested a lot of time, energy, and technology into multitasking that we forget that the whole point of technology was to do all of those side items for us so we could concentrate on the most important tasks without getting distracted.

    Unfortunately, the technology itself has become the distraction. We're always clamoring for the "next big thing" instead of improving what we already have. We're distracted by all of the newest social communities and games we've created that we leave little time for anything else.

    . . . and now that I've said that, I think I'll leave this social community for a bit and focus on something more important.
  • Time and Place

    This seems to qualify as a vacuum stat.

    If a co-worker asks me a question, in email, that I can answer in 1 minute and then a team of 5 can get back to work, but if I wait until the end of my six hours they are stopped.. avoiding email to focus MIGHT increase my productivity, but would certainly harm the organizations productivity.

    There is a time and a place for multi-tasking and a time and a place for intense focus. The biggest pitfall I see is either thinking one must exclude the other, or doing the wrong one at the wrong time.
  • Distractions are inherent - and also work

    Depending on the type of job you have, interacting with people is normal. Those interactions do not necessarily qualify as 'distractions'. It's work.

    Some jobs simply have more (unplanned) interactions than others, and it is part of the work.

    It is simplistic to capture real life in a 'focus vs multitasking' dichotomy. Only business consultants who are out of a job come up with that nonsense.
    • Exactly right

      Distractions are part of everyday life. Yes, it is annoying when you are just getting into the groove on something and someone comes in, making you forget what you were doing and, sometimes, how you were going to do it.

      However, you just have to deal with those things, especially in the real world where it might be your BOSS who is doing the interrupting.
      • Managing Interruptions

        The phone is there for your convenience, not theirs.

        Train your colleagues to recognise that physically
        interrupting you is for urgent & critical purposes only. There
        is email or voicemail for everything else.

        If your boss thinks it's okay to interrupt you for trivia, that's
        just another person you need to retrain.
    • Not a dichotomy

      Focus vs Multitasking is not a dichotomy, it is a continuum.

      You choose where you are on that continuum, even if you're
      a Personal Assistant.
      • Reading is a skill.

        I said "It is simplistic to capture real life in a 'focus vs multitasking' dichotomy".

        And yes, I am *so* impressed that you can choose where you are on the continuum, and that you can retrain your boss. Yawn.
  • Absolutely

    ... working through a project is like building a house of cards. When someone interrupts, it's like they just swept the table clean. Then you have to waste time trying to put your thoughts back together.

    I think that's what probably slows multi-taskers down - the effort it takes to constantly reorient to each new task. That's just time wasted.
  • Funny, whenever I am focusing on something

    My parents got angry because I 'tuned them out'. Same thing for my bosses.... they got angry when I did that as well.

    The fact is that today, people HAVE TO MULTI-TASK and be ready for someone to ask them a question or come in to ask them to explain the reasoning behind something that they did.

    To ignore that necessity is to live in a dreamworld.
    • I have the same problem. I am single tasker.

      When I am working on something intently, the world around me disappears.

      They key to my productivity is knowing when to turn that off. I can get incredible amounts of work done when I am focused, but when I'm needed for multiple things at once it all breaks down.
    • Catering to ADHD colleagues

      You just have to retrain your colleagues to learn that
      interruptions are for urgent matters only. Whether there
      should be a comma between the "however" and the rest of
      the sentence is not an urgent matter.

      To ignore the necessity to properly think things through
      before interrupting a colleague is to live in a fantasy world
      where looking busy actually gets things done.
      • Agreed

        If you interrupt someone at every little problem that comes along, then things just don't get done.... I have ADD, and my boss put me in a place that is away from traffic, and I don't get bothered unless it's really necessary.... All of us get a lot more work done that way.
      • Did you ever think

        that the problem lies not with the people racing around you, but with you?
  • RE: Focusing attention is the new work ethic

    I think that it all depends on what your work responsibilities are. If a major part or your work is about connecting to people, as in sales, recruiting, or ministry, then dealing with the interruptions is your job.
    • Managing time more important when people-facing

      For a sales person, don't you think it would be more
      important to control interruptions? How well does it work
      for you to be selling to a customer, convincing them that
      they're the most important person in your world, only to
      tell them, "sorry, I'll just quickly answer the phone because
      another sales prospect is more important than closing this

      Surely it would be better to close one sale, then show the
      new customer how important they are by calling them
  • Switch off your gadgets. Let people know when you're not available.

    Trying to please everyone cannot be sustained indefinitely. Burnout ensues, somebody replaces you because you're no longer able to cope with the tiniest problems.

    Learn to say NO.
    • I Agree!

      All those gadgets are about stimulating the part of our brain
      that likes novelty. By having these things interrupting you all
      the time, you're feeling good because there's always
      something new to look at.

      But you're getting nothing done.
  • Two Way..

    It takes two ways around to look upon on the multi-tasking point. Partly, it is a task that needs to be done by the employee. However, management has also the responsibilities to look upon the workload of their employee. Some are blind putting their employees overwhelm of workloads, that are no longer appropriate to carry on to their employee's current position. Interruptions in work is inherent and inevitable. Prioritizing things may help ease to fix things in a workplace.
  • You have to get in the "zone"...

    There are these sprints of most productive time called "being in the zone". Perhaps a good research theme would be: how to get faster into the zone...
    Roque Mocan
    • Anyone who runs distance can do this easily.

      Being "in the zone" is a requirement of high athletic performance. Physical activity and fitness is good for both the mind and the body.