David Rock spends a lot of time thinking about how we can best use our mental energy.
As director of the Australian NeuroLeadership Institute and author of Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus and Working Smarter All Day Long, he not only keeps abreast of related research, he also talks to workers about how they use their minds on the job.
"One of the questions I ask people is how much quality thinking time they get each day," he says. "I define quality thinking time as being able to focus deeply and achieve what you set out to achieve in the time you expect.
"The number continues to decrease as I ask people. It's not 20 or 10 or even five hours. For a lot of people it's a couple of hours a week, if that. The downside of technology is that it's getting harder and harder to focus.''
Part of the problem is that we are now bombarded with information.
Two researchers from the University of California San Diego, Roger Bohn and James Short, found that the amount of information - text, spreadsheet data, moving images and music - consumed per capita by Americans increased by 60 per cent between 1980 and 2008, from 7.4 hours a day to 11.8. Shockingly, these figures exclude working hours.
While information is generally useful, we also need space from it for our own thinking."Your ability to make great decisions is a limited resource," says Rock in Your Brain at Work. "This means not thinking when you don't have to, and becoming disciplined about not paying attention to non-urgent tasks."
So what is this magical skill you need to think clearly in our hyper-connected, information-glutted society?
The ability to say no.
Given that we have a finite amount of time and energy, learning when to say no will help you spend the maximum amount of both of these precious resources on activities that will help you get ahead. It will help you block out everyday distractions, keep you on track to reach your real goals, and help you develop the skills most important for your work. Here are some practical hints:
Avoid thinking during seemingly inconsequential periods.
Take, for instance, your commute. Many of us find that prime time for multitasking: why not squeeze a podcast in, or write a few emails? But Rock says rest is important to fuel our creativity and suggests you just take in the scenery.
Don't toggle your attention.
Turn off your smartphone during a meeting instead of idly checking to see what emails have come in. "Once you open your email program and notice messages from people you know, it's so much harder to stop yourself from reading them," Rock writes. Your brain will start expending energy in one direction, and you'll waste more energy snapping your attention back to the matter at hand.
Don't accept unwanted emails.
After getting too many emails from publicists, I spent two hours going through my inbox and unsubscribing from all the emails that I didn't want or need, and creating filters for the most irrelevant public relations emails I received so that those now go straight to my trash. It was one big session of saying, "No, I don't need that now or in the future." I noticed an immediate reduction in the amount of distraction and mental crowding that email was bringing into my life.
Don't let the outside world interrupt your rest.
Institute a no-gadgets rule at night. I won't have my phone or any other electronic device in my bedroom during sleeping hours. I have a separate alarm clock and read books instead of my smartphone. Once I implemented this rule, I immediately noticed the quality of my sleep improved.
Don't do work inessential to your main duties.
When a task comes your way, ask yourself if it will get you ahead on your main responsibilities. If not, consider whether it needs to be done at all, or whether you're the best person to be working on it. If you are part of a team, delegate it instead.
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