‘If you can keep playing tennis when somebody is shooting a gun down the street, that’s concentration.’
– Serena Williams
Throughout our day we are constantly interrupted – colleagues stop by, we’re called in to meetings, new emails and messages pop up on our computer, the phone rings, vibrates or beeps, nature calls and we procrastinate, ‘I’ll just quickly pop out and grab a coffee’…
Often, we spend more time on interruptions than on the tasks and goals we’ve set for ourselves. At the end of the day it can feel like we haven’t achieved – you’re chasing your tail, and it’s only Monday…
Research tells us that it takes around 25 minutes to resume the same level of concentration and critical thinking after an interruption. When you add it all up, it’s a wonder we get any work done at all. So what’s the secret? How can we reclaim more productive time in our day?
Well it turns out the secret is actually not a secret at all. Throughout history, we’ve seen intelligent people practicing basic strategies to achieve great things.
The human brain focuses at its best in 20-minute bursts. Too much longer than this and, according to Dr Paul King of TCU, we get ‘cognitive backlog’ – that is, the more information we are asked to take in, the harder it gets to retain it all. More information is retained when received in shorter amounts of time.
Let’s look at some of the great achievers in our time.
Guy Tozzoli, the Director of the World Trade Department of the Port of New York Authority in the 1960s is a great example. Determined to beat the clock and finish construction of the Twin Towers on time, he introduced ‘Tozzoli’s Rules’ – including one that decreed that no meeting should last longer than 17 minutes.
Steve Jobs gave one of the most popular commencement addresses of our time at Stanford University and he did it in 15 minutes. It took Dr. Martin Luther King a bit longer to share his dream of racial equality – he did it in 17 minutes.
It’s easy to complain about constant interruptions in our day – it’s harder to take control of them. But it’s absolutely possible.
Here are some quick and foolproof pain relievers to upgrade your efficiency:
Set a timer. It doesn’t matter what you use – your phone, an alarm clock or a good old-fashioned hour glass – as long as it’s something to measure time. Set it for 20 minutes.
Tune out to tune in. Turn off all tech distractions, especially pop ups like email, messaging and social media – and mute your phone(s).
Give yourself the time. Set up a signal to others, even if it’s a note on your door that you are in your 20-minutes zone of concentration.
If you allowed yourself two 20-minute concentration sessions every hour, that’s a massive win for you and your level of productivity. Try it for a week and see how you go. I bet you’ll be surprised by the results.