When Warren Buffett first met Bill Gates, they were each asked by a fellow dinner guest to identify what they thought was the single most important factor in their success. Both gave the same one-word answer: "Focus".
Luckily for the Oracle of Omaha (who made much of his fortune before the launch of the smartphone), he didn't have to contend with a full inbox, a constant stream of notifications and a buzzing phone.
We all want to get more done. However, with so many apps, plugins and widgets vying for our attention, it is no surprise that we are increasingly distracted. According to a recent study by Microsoft, the average human attention span has dropped to just eight seconds, down from 12 seconds in 2002 -- closely rivaled by the famously un-focused goldfish (nine seconds).
In the context of work, the average office employee now switches tasks every three minutes and gets interrupted every 11 minutes. Once interrupted, it can then take up to 23 minutes to re-focus. Add these numbers together, and we find ourselves in a distraction-recovery loop that consumes nearly 28 percent of our day.
But before you trade in your new iPad for a tin-foil hat, let's consider some solutions. The ability to stay focused and productive at work has never been more essential to our career success. Here are some strategies that can help:
1. Set blocks of focus time.
Setting blocks of time to focus exclusively on a high-priority task is an excellent way to boost your productivity. One strategy is to put aside one to two 60-minute blocks each day where you switch off all notifications and work exclusively on a single activity. If you have trouble doing this, download an app such as SelfControl (which lets you block websites for a set period of time).
2. Stop Multitasking.
Just stop it. According to Harvard Business Review, multi-tasking leads to a 40 percent drop in productivity, increased stress and a 10 percent drop in IQ. Contrary to popular belief, the human brain is actually incapable of doing multiple things at once. Instead, we task-switch, shifting from one thing to another. This not only lowers our productivity, but it also trains our brains to be disorganised and reduces our ability to remember key information.
3. Clear your Environment.
In The Art of Non-Fiction, author Ayn Rand discusses a malady affecting writers which she calls white-tennis-shoe syndrome. A fancy name for procrastination, it refers to our tendency to do anything and everything to avoid getting started on an important task (even cleaning our white tennis shoes).
One way to avoid this common pitfall is to clear your environment of as many distractions as possible. This also applies to your mobile phone -- one recent study found that simply having a mobile phone visible can distract us from complex tasks by reminding us of the "broader social community" we can access.
4. Use a Timer.
Another great productivity tool is to set a timer for working on certain tasks. For instance, Michelle Bryant recommends using the "10 Minute Rule". She suggests that every task on your to-do list should take no more than 10 minutes to complete. If it takes any longer, then it should be broken down into smaller chunks or delegated to someone else. Setting a 10-minute timer for activities such as replying to emails or preparing for meetings creates a sense of urgency that improves our focus. It even works with your home chores.
5. Make a List.
Perhaps the most famous productivity tip of all time, the simple to-do list can dramatically improve your results. In his book, Eat that Frog, author Brian Tracy suggests we should rank our tasks in terms of importance and then work through them one-by-one from highest-to-lowest priority. However, before you buy yourself a lifetime supply of post-it notes, you may also want to consider a digital to-do list app such as Trello.
6. Play Music on Repeat.
In her book, On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind, author and psychologist Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis suggests that listening to songs on repeat can improve our focus and prevent our minds from wandering. Give it a try.
Because it works. Meditating, alongside its other benefits, for as little as 10-15 minutes per day can help your mind to remain present, calm and focused on the task at hand.