How we can use our brains to maximize productivity.
In today’s fast-paced world, the question we all want the answer to is: how can I be more productive? There are countless tools that aim to help us increase productivity, but what about asking this question instead: why do we get so distracted in the first place?
Our brains were simply not designed to be able to handle the sheer number of distractions that pop up in our modern lives. Checking emails, scrolling on social media, and incoming notifications on our devices take our attention away from the task at hand, and make it very difficult to stay focused for any period of time. Instead, we want to aim to get into a flow state.
What is flow?
The concept of Flow was popularized by Positive Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It describes the feeling of being completely focused on, and absorbed in a specific activity, i.e., being “in the zone”. When you get into a flow state, your frontal lobe becomes less engaged, and your brain shifts from beta to alpha waves – slower waves which characterize that the brain is in a more energy-efficient mode. Being in a state of flow means that you’re able to do things more effortlessly.
However, distractions such as social media notifications, emails and messages coming in create a surge of dopamine in the brain and take you off task, and out of the flow state; it then becomes difficult to get back in the zone.
How can we manage this?
A simple technique to manage distractions is the Pomodoro technique. This involves spending 25 focused minutes on a task while doing nothing else, and then taking a 5-minute break. Simple as it sounds, it’s a way of training your brain to stay focused on a single task, thereby increasing your ability to focus over time, and leading to greater productivity and efficiency in the long run.
Instead of giving yourself 2 hours or a day to complete a task (and ending up getting distracted scrolling on social media or checking email several times), try shorter and more focused bursts of work without any distractions. If 25 minutes sounds like too much, start with 15 or 20 (that’s what I did while writing this article), and work your way up to longer periods of time.
It may feel unnatural at first to simply focus on one thing; you’ll find yourself wanting to reach for your phone, or open up your email or social media. Avoid this temptation. It is estimated that it takes about 23 minutes to re-focus on a task after being distracted; by then, you’ve lost precious minutes that could have been used to complete a task.
Multi-tasking is a myth – it simply involves rapidly switching from one task to another. Contrary to popular belief, this is not actually an efficient way to get things done. Instead it ends up taking longer to complete things since your brain loses time having to repeatedly refocus on a different activity. Furthermore, it can lead to greater distractibility, and difficulty focusing on a single task in the long run.
By nature, our brains are distracted and curious, and will often take our attention away from the task at hand to things happening around us. In today’s distracted world, that could be something as simple as a new email, or text notification.
Our brains have simply not evolved to be able to handle the level of distraction and information overload that exist in our lives today, hence the importance of training our brains to focus on tasks, and removing distractions where we can.
Ultimately, the key to productivity lies in creating good habits and training our brains to be more focused. This takes time and intention, but with consistent practice, it becomes easier. Increasing productivity starts with changing (i.e. training) our brains; by extension, we then have the ability to change our habits, and ultimately, our lives.
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Written by Alia Rajab
Check out our episode with Dr. Erik Reis where he breaks this down further