I've been thinking a lot lately about keeping my attention focused, inspired in part by a few things I've read recently, and in part by the fact that we're in our most frenetic time of the year at work, which means attention is a precious commodity. The difficulty of the situation is that I work in a business where the fragmentation of attention is not only common, it's sort of encouraged. The trouble with maintaining focus in any office environment is that you can't really escape the fact that you're in said office to work collaboratively with other people, and those people are going to want to talk to you. This problem is magnified in the tech sector because A) the great thing about the internet is that there's all kinds of stuff happening all at once, and B) many of our exciting new communication tools (Twitter, IM, etc) are designed to capture your immediate attention, regardless of what you're doing. Here are a few things I've been putting into effect to maintain my ability to focus at work and at home. This isn't a particularly original list, as there are a whole lot of very smart people writing on this subject, but this is what's been working for me:
Staying off of IM Instant messaging in the office is becoming commonplace. In theory, it's a great way to take care of quick communications. It takes two seconds, and you don't have to get out of your chair. The problem with IM is that people who use it expect it to be instantaneous. A reasonable expectation, since it's in the name. The result is that it's not always so easy to defer an IM conversation in order to stay focused on what you're doing. If somebody asks me to do something that will only take a minute, it doesn't seem fair to ask them to IM me again in an hour. The trouble is that those minutes add up quickly, and the total cost of each distraction is much greater, because it takes me a while to get back into the mental space I was in before I got distracted. So as much as possible, I'm keeping my conversation to email or face-to-face format, which are easier to control and tend to move at a more reasonable pace.
Breaking tasks up into bite-size pieces The most common cause of wandering attention for me is when I'm working on a task that's too big to wrap my head around. If I have something on my schedule that's going to take 6 hours, I generally try to break it down into smaller sub-tasks that take more like half an hour. The advantage of this is twofold: it helps me see the project as the sum of simple parts, none of which are overwhelming, rather than a huge, unmanageable pile of work. It also creates break points at which I can deal with whatever emergencies or other small tasks crop up while I'm working. If someone comes to me with a question, I only have to hold them off until I've finished whatever sub-task I'm working on, and then I can leave and come back without disrupting the flow of my work too much.
Writing things down A great way to stop thinking about something that's distracting you is to put it on paper. That way you don't have to use any extra brain cycles to remind yourself to deal with it later. Even on a day where I only have a few things on my plate, I still make an actual list of what they are so I can pick up one of them and leave the rest on the table. At work I have the advantage of a production manager and project management software to help keep track of things, but lately I've also been keeping my own simple list of what I plan to do for the day, so again if I get asked to do something while I'm in the middle of another project, I can just write the new task down and immediately stop thinking about it.
The over-arching goal of these smaller practices is to stop "multitasking" and start giving each thing I do the attention it demands in order to it purposefully and effectively in a timely fashion. At least for me, and probably for most people, multitasking makes me think I'm getting a lot of things done at once but actually results in getting much less done. As the authors I linked to above would be quick to point out, there is no true multitasking. Our brains can only focus on one thing at a time. Sure, we can oscillate rapidly between tasks to give the effect of multitasking, but for every switch there is an energy cost as we lose our inertia on one train of thought and have to regain it on another.