Hocus focus

Does your mind wander? Do your managers stop you in the middle of presentations to ask, “What are you thinking?” Do you constantly lose your car keys, not remembering you don’t own a car?

These are classic symptoms of people who have trouble with focus.

I’m not a neurologist, or a psychiatrist, or even a veterinarian, but I do believe that an inability to focus is the result of too many distractions. So does Chris Bailey, a productivity consultant and the author of the opinion piece, “Distracted? Work Harder!” (The article appeared in The New York Times over a year ago. I would have brought it to your attention earlier, but I was distracted by the 10th season of “The Bachelor.” This is a temporary situation. I only have 13 seasons to go.)

The way Bailey sees it, the real reason for being distracted is not the constantly breaking and infinitely depressing news flow or the urgent posts from friends on Facebook. (Yes, it is exciting that your college roommate has a new goldfish, but is this any reason to forget the Monday morning staff meeting?)

The problem is your work. It simply “isn’t complex enough” and “there isn’t enough of it.”

“This idea isn’t a popular one,” Bailey admits, “especially with those who feel they’re already working at capacity.” Is it a popular idea with you? Before you say yes, try to remember the last time you went to your supervisor to ask for more work — and the more complex, the better.

I thought so.

Author Bailey endorses complex assignments because they “demand more of our working memory.” (What they do to your goofing-off memory is not considered.) By taking on a difficult and demanding assignment, your mind doesn’t have time to be seduced by the distractions around you such as the internet, the cellphone or the centerfold in your monthly copy of Miniature Donkey Talk magazine.

On the other hand, the total immersion required by a complex project will make you more productive. If you doubt it, immerse yourself in “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” a book by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (or, as his closest friends call him, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi).

To achieve flow at your job, you want to approach every assignment with the level of concentration demanded of, say, an ice climber clinging to a frozen waterfall with grizzly bears nipping at their heels.

Chris Bailey calls this state of total attention “hyperfocus.” It can only be experienced when “the challenge of completing a task is roughly equal to our ability to complete it.” While the assignments you receive at work may be equal to the ability of a banana slug, you can find areas of your life where a high level of complexity leaves no room for distractions to slip in.

Yes, I’m talking about the menu at McDonald’s. So many choices. So many decisions. Simply contemplating the varieties of McNugget offerings produces a state of flow so fluid it passes and surpasses the hyperfocus required by that ice-climbing idiot, risking their life to climb a popsicle.

And what if your regular work assignments do not equal the death-defying feats of an ice climber or the mind-absorbing effort of navigating the menu at Mickey D’s? You are advised to ask for more work.

If asking for more mind-bending, bone-crushing assignments goes against your moral code, there are ways you can limit distractions without taking up ice climbing — ways that go far, far beyond Chris Bailey’s suggestion of “downloading a distraction-blocking application for your computer” and “putting your phone in Do Not Disturb mode.”

As your first step to going distraction-free, pick up a chainsaw and go Stephen King on your computer and your cellphone. You can also rip the electric wires from under your cubical floor and fill the USB outlets with chocolate pudding. If this doesn’t work, have your manager move your workstation to a dark, damp cave. There are very few distractions in a cave, assuming you pay no attention to the spiders and the bats.

Working in a cave to cure a lack of focus may seem like an extreme solution, but the productivity generated by removing distractions could be a game changer. As Chris Bailey says, “once we’ve removed distractions … we discover how much, or how little, we truly have on our plate.”

Which brings us back to that menu at McDonald’s.

I say, fill your plate with the vegetarian wings. They’re epic!


Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California.


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