Stress and focus

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I think it’s fairly well established by now that multi-tasking is a myth — at best we can switch back and forth among multiple tasks, not work on two or more things simultaneously.

That still leaves the problem of how all this back-and-forth switching affects us mentally. Whenever we start to work on something, there’s a bit of mental overhead as we orient ourselves, find the place where we left off and decide what to do next.

This process takes time, and if we’re on a deadline it’s not unusual to feel anxiety. This is another distraction, another mini-task trying to come along for the ride. If you’ve ever tried to rush through an urgent job you may also have noticed problems concentrating, increased heart rate and breathing, and perhaps even some clumsiness: Dropping tools, mistyping words, and generally having to work harder to get the job done.

The obvious solution is to stop the mental switching and clear away everything but the actual work. Easier said than done, but it’s a skill that can be learned and gradually strengthened.

  • First, acknowledge that your thoughts are racing and leading you off track. Perhaps there’s a chance that you’ll have to stay late and miss your bus. It’s a legitimate worry, but dwelling on it won’t get you to the bus stop any faster. Decide: Do I want to stop where I am and work on this some other time? Make a conscious choice to stay or go, accept it, and act upon it.
  • If you decide to continue with the work, take a moment to shake out the tension and get your breathing slowed down a bit. Stretch. Have a sip of water.
  • Grab some paper and write down anything you need to remember that isn’t directly related to the work, so that you don’t have to hold it in your thoughts.
  • Finally, resume the task. Start small, work carefully, and keep bringing your thoughts back to the task when they wander. This is the place where the habit-formation happens. You have to teach your mind to stay on topic, and the best way to do that is to interrupt it when it tries to do something else. Repeat as necessary.

The big pay-off comes when this starts to feel natural. As concentration gets gradually stronger, interruptions become less frequent and the stress level also starts to drop. You may experience a productivity boost, but that’s not the important thing. Feeling at ease, with less anxiety and distracting mental chatter, is a boon that belongs to you rather than to your work. Just keep trying, clearing away thought-clutter and doing one thing at a time.

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