How to identify the common work habits that are sabotaging your productivity and attention management

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  • Maura Nevel Thomas is an award-winning speaker and trainer on individual and corporate productivity and work-life balance. Her Empowered Productivity System, a process for achieving significant results and living a life of choice, has influenced the practices at organizations such as the US Army, L'Oréal, and Dell.
  • The following is an excerpt from her book, "Attention Management: How to Create Success and Gain Productivity - Every Day."
  • In it, she says that common work habits can often hold up productivity and lead to undue stress. Spending the day multitasking can make you feel productive, but it actually slows work down.
  • This can also surface through organizational issues. Expecting employees to be constantly checking their emails or always physically in the office could be impacting their attention management.
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Now it's time to take a closer look at how attention management - or the lack of it - shapes your work and your life daily. You may be surprised to learn how common work behaviors actually make you unproductive, stressed, and unsatisfied. "But I have to work this way," you might protest. "This is just how my office is."

However, these unhealthy habits and behaviors are just symptoms of distraction, and they are truly optional. This means you can transform your experience at work - and improve your life overall - by sharpening your attention management skills.Advertisement

Here are some common situations that sabotage productivity and attention management. How many have you experienced or observed?

Distractions take over

Do you constantly feel that it's impossible to get anything done because of all the drop-ins and "got a minutes?" you must deal with? My clients tell me one of their biggest distractions is being interrupted by what I call "OPPs" - other people's problems - that they are constantly asked to weigh in on.

You know those times when you're sitting at your desk, just starting to feel immersed in an important task, and then you hear your name? Instantly, your attention shifts from your task to the interrupter as they begin telling you about an issue they want your help with. When they (finally!) leave, research shows it could take several minutes to more than an hour to get back to where you were with your work and begin to make progress again. Even worse, when you expect interruptions, you tend to work faster, and this increases your stress and frustration.
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Technology is another major distraction. You're dealing with a massive influx of information that was hard to imagine even 15 years ago. Myriad information channels - email, texts, social media, and on and on, along with your nagging impulse to check them constantly for something new - compete for your attention when you're trying to focus on important work.

Even our physical environments steal our focus. Our work spaces have become less supportive of productivity. More and more of us work in open office settings that aim to foster collaboration, but they end up hampering focused work. Just think about how many times you've lost your train of thought when activity near your desk distracts you.
Attention Management: How to Create Success and Gain Productivity - Every Day
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Without attention management skills, all the little distractions in your day become a big drain on your productivity and your happiness. You spend your day multitasking, which may make you feel productive, but it actually slows down your work, causes you to make more mistakes, and results in many things done "part way" and almost nothing done to completion. This saps the satisfaction from your work.

Psychologists and researchers Theresa Amabile and Steve Kramer coined the phrase "the progress principle" to summarize their findings that, "of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run."

Attention management skills are critical to taking back control. They allow you to refocus your day on your priorities, so you can make progress on your meaningful work instead of reacting to every incoming demand on your attention.Advertisement

Unproductive cultures take root

When employees are stressed, disengaged, and unproductive, their problems are typically blamed on poor organization or time-management skills. But the actual cause is often an organizational issue that discourages the practice of attention management.

A few examples of how this can play out:

  • Employees are tethered to email. Whether managers intend this or not, there are countless offices where employees think they're being judged on how quickly they answer emails or whether they respond to emails sent after hours. With this laser focus on responsiveness, the quality of their other, more important work suffers because they can't give it sustained, deep attention.
  • Managers evaluate employees based in part on how much time they log at the office. As a result, the company has a bias against hiring or retaining outstanding employees who need to work remotely full or part time. This happens when managers think productivity requires face time in the office. In reality, employees with good attention-management and workflow-management skills can work productively anywhere, and those employees who lack those skills will underperform no matter where they work.
  • Busyness (rather than actual productivity) is a badge of honor. An office where everyone is always "putting out fires" is not a productive one. Yet how often do you hear colleagues bragging about how busy they are? How often do you engage in this behavior yourself? Constant, frantic activity doesn't mean that your office is fast paced and exciting. It just means you work amid chaos. Behaviors that would actually help you prevent some of those fires - like planning and deep thinking - end up feeling like a luxury that you can't afford to indulge.
When an organization's leaders foster employees' ability to manage attention, the team will get more important work done and their morale will improve. Advertisement

Ensuring that the right messages are sent about things like communication procedures, managing for results rather than time on task, and being productive rather than busy will pay huge dividends for an organization's bottom line.
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