Over two decades as an entrepreneur in the manufacturing industry, Kira Leskew saw what lapses in concentration could do to workers and companies. “If you trace back quality problems, a very high percentage of the time [it’s because] someone didn’t do something,” she explains. “They couldn’t concentrate, they weren’t concentrating, they got interrupted, or they had competing priorities and could only pay attention to one thing.”
Leskew is now a mindfulness coach and president of Kira Leskew Productions, her fifth business. Focusing on the task at hand is a big problem in the business world, she says, pointing to the 55 million Google searches annually for the phrase “I can’t concentrate.” And she believes the problem is worsening: five years ago studies showed that the average person was interrupted every 11 minutes; today’s reports put it at every 5.5 minutes.
To illustrate the seriousness of this issue for businesses, Leskew relays an anecdote. At her last business, a factory supervisor came to her with a concern. “We had the highest sales backlog that we’d ever had in the history of the company,” recalls Leskew. “And he said, I need to send people home, I don’t have orders to process.'”
Neither Leskew’s business partner nor her sales team could explain the problem, so Leskew followed her training in quality control: go and watch. “What I realized was they weren’t focusing on their work,” she explains. Her sales staff were constantly being interrupted, by themselves and others. They simply couldn’t get their tasks done. “It was to the point that I was going to be sending staff home, while at the same time I had orders and [was] missing deadlines for customers.”
Here’s what Leskew says you can do to help your employees—and yourself—concentrate.
It starts at the top
Bosses are particularly susceptible to interruption thanks to a common management best-practice: the open-door policy. “I totally agree that we need to have great communication in our organizations and people have to feel like they can brings things forward,” Leskew allows. But she says the rise of the open-door manager actually helped the interruption problem in the first place. “People could have access to you at any time,” she notes. “It didn’t matter what you were working on, someone had permission to come in and get your attention.”
But leaders can’t recognize a concentration deficit among their workforce if they suffer from one themselves says Leskew. “The reason that I was able to solve that problem and my business partner wasn’t is because he was used to being interrupted all day long, and I wasn’t,” she explains.
Between emails, phone calls, and co-workers with questions, there are plenty of distractions embedded in any day at the office. But you don’t need something else to break your concentration—you’re quite capable of doing that for yourself. “About three-quarters of the interruptions that people have in the workplace [are because] they interrupt themselves,” says Leskew.
People are so used to being interrupted that they’re constantly checking their environment for fresh distractions, she explains. “We literally can’t sit and do what’s in front of us, because we’re waiting to get interrupted again.” Or we seek out distraction. For example, someone working on a sales proposal might realize they need to refer to an email, then spend half an hour answering messages instead of completing his or her original task.
Start the clock
Unless you’ve got someone monitoring you the way Leskew did her sales team, it’s hard to know when you’re interrupting yourself. “You don’t actually know when you’ve gone off track and you’ve lost concentration,” she points out.
Leskew recommends using a timer to track the ebb and flow of your focus. “Start with 10 minutes. Turn the timer on, and go about doing whatever you’re doing,” she says. “When the timer goes off, ask yourself: Am I doing what I started out to do?” A lot of the time the answer will be “no,” but at least that way you’re aware of your lapses in concentration.
Most people should be able to work on something for 4560 minutes without losing focus, Leskew contends. “But [it’s] going to take time and training to get there,” she admits. “It might take up to a year of building up a few minutes at a time.”
Build it into your schedule
You need to set aside time every day for concentrated work, says Leskew. “The key is setting up 30 minutes where you absolutely do not get interrupted unless its a huge emergency.”
That’s how Leskew she fixed her sales team’s focus problem. “I gave them each a minimum 30 minutes a day where they could work uninterrupted,” she explains. It worked. “I just got over three hours’ work done in 30 minutes. I can go home and have dinner with my family tonight instead of staying here late [to] get caught up,” one sales rep told her.
Mandating uninterrupted time for your employees doesn’t just help them get more done, it also improves the quality of their work. “It gives people the time and the space to do what they need to do and to do it well, because everyone wants to do a good job.”
Allow some slack time too
Leskew often asks people she speaks to where they came up with their last innovative thought. The answer is often in the shower, or while waiting in line, or during a run—not at their desks under a ticking clock.
The best ideas rarely come under immense pressure. “When we’re both relaxed and focused at the same time, that is when our brains are most able to produce creative results,” says Leskew. “That’s when you’re most able to do innovative thinking.”
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