Use the Psychology of Focus to Get More Done

Beware the Illusion of Multitasking


Have you ever had one of those days when you felt like you achieved a lot of things, but when you thought about it before a good night’s sleep, you found you’ve actually achieved nothing?

That is the illusion of multitasking.

Or as Clifford I. Nass, a professor of psychology at Stanford University once said, “Heavy multitaskers are often extremely confident of their abilities, but there’s evidence that those people are actually worse at multitasking than most people.”

And he’s not alone with his opinion. Various psychological studies have since found that multitasking comes with a host of side-effect, which includes everything from dampened creativity to lower IQ, and ironically, decreased productivity.

In fact, studies have shown that your brain can really only handle one task at a time, and even though it only takes one-tenths of a second to switch from one task to another, these “little” delays can add up and account for as much as 40% of a person’s productive time. And that’s not even including the 15 minutes it takes, on average, for people to get back “in the flow”.

So you want to multiply your productivity and grow your business? The answer is simple: focus.

Optimizing Your Work Space

Most people think focus is an issue of “willpower”. That if you just “try to focus more”, the problem would go away. I believe the inability to focus are really two problems: a lack of willpower and an abundance of negative triggers.

Before I go on, let’s get one thing straight: willpower is a limited resource. It’s not a motivational issue. It’s a capability issue. Studies have shown that if you spend your willpower resisting a piece of cookie, for example, you’ll spend less time trying to solve a complex puzzle later.

Willpower can grow, just like a muscle can get stronger, but there’s always a limit. It is a resource that should be managed like time and money. When we run out of willpower, we need to take a break. And because focus takes willpower, I believe multitasking, therefore, is a form of “mental break”.

So my approach to focus is twofold: increase willpower and conserving it. The first approach — willpower — is not only widely discussed, it’s also a painful process. I won’t go through it in this article.

The cleverer approach is to cut down on the distractions that drain your willpower. And one of the biggest drains of willpower are triggers. What are triggers?

According to BJ Fogg, founder of Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab, three things must converge at the same time for a particular behaviour to take place: motivation, ability and trigger.

So according to Fogg, if you want to stop multitasking, you can try to change your motivation (difficult, in my experience) or you can hamper your ability (eg: hire a supervisor to stand over your shoulder). None of which are ideal, of course.

The last, and in my opinion, the easiest way to avoid multitasking is to simply get rid of triggers. Triggers are reminders for you to multitask. They are like temptations.

So for example, if you’re working on this report and Outlook pops up saying you have a new email… guess what you’ll do? That’s right, you’ll immediately check out the email. The same is true with any other alerts and notices.

Other common triggers include:

  1. Advertisements. Have you ever surfed the web for research but clicked through an ad and as a result, abandoned what you were doing? Enough said.
  2. The people around you. I used to work from home and one of the biggest triggers for multitasking at the time was my wife – once in a while she would ask me to check her email, or come into the room with a plate of food (it was a loving gesture, but that doesn’t make it OK!)

In your case, the trigger maybe the colleague who keeps dropping by, asking if “you have a minute”. Or perhaps it’s your boss always looking over your shoulder.

Mental Drains

Other than triggers, here are two more common mental-drains:

  1. Noise. Try this: Close your eyes and just listen. Can you hear your computer buzzing? How about the air conditioner humming? Maybe it’s traffic speeding by?

    These background noises have been shown to lower willpower and discipline, even if the subjects didn’t perceive stress from them. And as we now know, as your willpower drains, you begin to multitask.

  2. This one is the least talked-about mental-drain: functional control of your working environment. Functional control means you have to be able to adjust anything you want in your working space, things like the temperature, where you sit, what’s on your desk, brightness, etc.

    Functional control not only gives you physical comfort, it also give you psychological comfort. The fact that you can control the space gives you a sense of territoriality and safe space. It’s the difference between working in a strange environment and a place you’re familiar with.

    Now some entrepreneurs I know of are perfectly comfortable working in a cafe, but most of us just couldn’t handle the lack of functional control. The fact that there are strangers around you all the time puts most of us on edge.

So there, 4 easy ways to conserve your willpower and focus more. Do you have any tips? I’d love to hear them in the comments.

Author’s Bio:
Andrianes Pinantoan is part of the team behind Open Colleges, an accredited business management courses provider. You can follow him @andreispsyched.

–ME “Liz” Strauss
Work with Liz on your business!!


  1. says

    Just want to pop by and thank Liz for publishing my guest post!

    And if you guys have any questions, please feel free to comment. I’ve subscribed to the comments made to this article so I’ll definitely reply to yours.


  2. says

    For me, I have a tendency to multi-task, and I can become easily distracted. When I was in grad school, I had a suggestion that each time you are distracted or you have the urge to switch tasks, put a check mark on a piece of paper, and write down a note about the distracting thought, then return to exactly what you were doing. As time goes on, you will become more focused and have fewer check marks.

    Another trick I’ve learned is to do a mind dump in the morning. This gets everything out of my head and onto a piece of paper. Some may recommend doing that once a week, but I find that my mind wanders too much if I don’t do this every morning. Later in the day, I’ll go through and prioritize tasks for the next day.

  3. says

    Enjoyed this article. What is working for me is to run things/ideas/networking presented to me through my “purposeful filter”. If it is not aligned with my values, purpose, my “why”, I just say “no” and don’t allow it on my plate in the first place. This has probably eliminated 50% of my “to do” list and other distractions. I also more time to reflect and relax…and “re-create”.

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