After decades of arguing, it seems that humans have a smaller capacity for attention than first thought. In this Information Age, your brain literally gets bombarded by millions of calls to its attention every day and it has to decide what to ‘attend to’ or filter out, otherwise we would not be able to function. We would be crazy! You might know someone who is heading this way…

You will instinctively know what it is like when you have too much going on (too much to attend to): you start to feel stressed, may get irritable with others and will find it harder to make decisions, often about simple things e.g. choosing from a menu. In the workplace this is commonplace, especially as many people have seen their roles expand to accommodate the duties of a pared down workforce.

Apparently, we can only ‘hold’ in the mind approximately four ‘items’ at any one time (it depends on what they are… if it is numbers it may be more) and we cannot think about, or do them all at once. Yes, multi-tasking is a myth*. Also, the bigger the emotional response to an item, the more space it will take up in your thinking and the more resources it will use e.g. like a 10 MB file takes up more ‘space’ in the capacity of your email folder.

Here is a example: in addition to your ‘normal’ life activities this week, you have an important meeting to prepare for work, a proposal to write, dinner party to plan and cook, Christmas shopping to buy and many telephone calls and emails to respond to. Have a go and think about all of these things at the same time now. Substitute them for whatever is relevant to you. Difficult isn’t it.
Even more difficult if you have got something distracting you in the background competing for your attention. You may have observed your stress response kick in, and you may have even started to get in a flap…

So how do we ensure that we get everything done, give each item or task our best performance, be efficient AND remain calm and in control?

You actively choose the one item that you attend to at any one time and ditch thinking about the rest for later. Simple?
The very fact that more days are lost from work due to stress-related ill health, implies that we are actually not very good at doing this.
We like to believe that we can do lots of things at the same time. Even your PC will slow down if you are asking it to execute too many activities at once!

The most effective way to focus on one task giving it your best attention, is to first, literally get the others out of brain.
Write them all down or draw labelled boxes in a grid on paper or if you prefer, on a whiteboard in your office. Be as creative with this as you like. Then you can see any links and plan the steps to achieve them for a later time.

This exercise frees up space in the ‘working memory’ part of your brain to utilise all of your available cognitive brain power on the single, chosen task for immediate focus. It also induces a reassuring, calming affect (with a physiological change) knowing that the other tasks will be tackled at the appropriate time. In addition, ensure that you remove or limit as much as possible any distractions from your attention e.g. switch off email, telephone, ask others not to interrupt you, shut the door etc.

Having practised this technique for many months now, I guarantee that you will increase your productivity, get your work done in less time, feel more calm – and importantly, finish the task!
One more thing, it is not as easy to do as it sounds. Sorry. Your brain naturally likes to ‘wander’ and day-dream (you know this already!)
Notice if you need a quick break and use the power of human ‘free-will’ to get back to the task.