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Mar 08

Focus, Filter and Forget

Posted by: George Mulhern        

Hi, my name is George and I am a recovering multi-tasker.

Based on the incredible advances in information and communications technology it would seem that the productivity of business leaders must be skyrocketing. Having access to more and better information and being able to reach out to people around the world and get a near instantaneous response is incredibly powerful. But it takes a lot of self discipline for you to be your most productive when you get to eat at the information smorgasbord everyday. And, like Spiderman’s Uncle Ben said, “with great power, comes great responsibility”.   I will get back to the responsibility part in a minute.

The demands on a CEO or business leader can be especially challenging, when you combine the volume of information available, with the interruptions possible in an always on, always connected environment. The result can be what the buddhist call “Monkey Brain”. To be an effective leader of a business, or any organization, you need time to assimilate and synthesize all of those points of data and information in order to create “insight”. Time to find the connections and patterns in the information.

I went through a period thinking that the answer was to become a more effective multi-tasker.  Wrong answer.  In fact, there is a growing amount of evidence that multi-tasking is the worst way to cope with information overload and attention fragmentation. In an article written by Derek Dean and Caroline Webb of McKinsey & Co., called “Recovering From Information Overload”, they cite a growing body of evidence that multi-tasking makes human beings less productive, less creative and less able to make good decisions. For example, in a recent study participants who completed tasks in parallel took up to 30% longer and made twice as many errors as those who completed the same tasks in sequence. Turns out, our brain is a bit like a pc. In order to switch tasks it needs to save what it is doing in the current app and boot up the next before it can get started (very time consuming for those with a MS Windows based brain). Another study found that when people have highly fragmented days – with many activities, meetings and discussions in groups – their creative thinking decreases significantly. Oh yea, and it turns out that being distracted by the latest email, text message or tweet can actually be addictive. A couple of Harvard MD’s published a paper regarding people for whom feeling connected provides something like a dopamine squirt – the neural effects follow the same pathways used by addictive drugs. Do you have the urge to grab your smart phone whenever it beeps for a new email or tweet? An uncontrollable urge……..?

(You can read Derek and Caroline’s paper called “Recovering from Information Overload” here)

So, what do you do? If you are going to be effective, you can’t opt out of being connected, being available or informed. While tougher than it was 50 years ago - the solution, at least at a high level, is still the same. It takes tremendous self-discipline and some combination of Focus, Filtering and Forgetting. Know what your real priorities are and focus on getting those done. Filter out and forget the unimportant. Only get deeply involved in things that truly require your attention – by the way - your employees might actually appreciate this. And, carve out time to recharge your batteries and contemplate stuff (technical term).

Back to Spiderman’s Uncle’s comment – you owe it to the people in your organization to set a good example, and model the behaviors that will lead to a more productive team and hopefully, a more successful business.

Derek and Caroline give some good examples of best practices in their article, but we would love to hear some of your best practices. How do you stay informed but productive. How do you get the important stuff done in the “always on, always connected” world.  Any tools or tips you would like to share?


10 Responses to “Focus, Filter and Forget”

  1. avatar @tacanderson says:

    Maybe you were multitasking during the Spiderman movie or while reading the comic book but the quote actually comes from Peter Parker/Spiderman's Uncle Ben :)

    • georgemulhern says:

      Thanks Tac. I just went back and corrected my error while having my coffee, doing email and talking to my wife on the phone………….

  2. avatar tobymurdock says:

    i do some rather simple things:

    1) many of my peers like to get multiple computer monitors with huge screens so that they can have many windows open at once. to me, that begs for multi-tasking overload. i've stubbornly stuck with a single small screen

    2) on my pen & paper notebook every day i write down what i'm going to do. the pixels dance all around all day, but i try to stick with that list to remain focus on priorities.

  3. avatar @deeveaux says:

    What's been a life saver for me is Nutshell mail. It condenses all of your social streams in to an email digest that you can have fed to you at intervals of your choosing. I set mine to twice a day, and then review it quickly to see if there is anything that needs my attention. Usually there is nothing so the only time spent was the minute or two it took to review the email.

    Also, taking the time to create private Twitter lists and Groups in Facebook has proven to be effective for those times when I lack the discipline to stay away from the time suck.

    • georgemulhern says:

      Devin, thanks for the tip on Nutshell. Haven't tried it but will check it out. I also like Instapaper as a way to capture interesting odds and ends during the day that I can then review later when I get a block of time.

  4. This article is so timely…. Cognitive overload is almost a supplemental evil that entwines with virtually all the new inventions and gadgets of the information age… Efficiency through multitasking is a myth that many of us have come to believe….

  5. Great topic and article.
    (By the way the Buddhist term is Monkey Mind and it refers to that aspect of the mind that is constantly chattering at us as it swings from doubt to worry and back to doubt again.)

    • georgemulhern says:

      Thanks for your comment and clarification Dru. I would love to hear how you balance staying informed while getting the most important things done.

  6. avatar Brice Sloan says:

    Great article! As someone In the recovery phase of a dangerous codependent relationship with too much info surfing and too little processing, I have to 1) write out my to do lists 2) hide my phone or give it to someone else and 3) each day try to spend two hours on one task - often from 7am to 9am.

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