Our brains crave novelty

In The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains , Nicholas Carr explains how our brain, through neuroplasticity, adapts in response to changes in our environment, like technology innovations, which means we gain and lose certain skills. Social media, email, and team communications tools stimulate our very human desire to want to connect with people and access novel information but diminish the focus and processing skills that our literacy culture of books and newspapers built up. As Carr writes :

“[E]ach interruption brings us a valuable piece of information… And so we ask the Internet to keep interrupting us, in ever more and different ways. We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive.”

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Once you know what you’ll focus on, you’ll need a daily structure for staying focused on it. You may not be able to eliminate context switching from your day entirely, but these strategies will help you cut down on the number of times you have to shift your attention:

  • Task batching : Grouping and performing similar tasks together. For example, answering all of your emails at the same time so you’re not bouncing back and forth between your work and your inbox all day.
  • Time blocking : Dividing your day into blocks, such as “meetings,” “email,” and “deep work”. This method goes a step further than task batching and requires you to physically block off time on your calendar for a designated task or group of tasks and only those tasks.
  • Theme days : Designating different days of the week for different types of tasks. This is a more extreme version of task batching and time blocking that allows you to focus on certain types of work on certain days and postpone other types of work that don’t fit with the day’s theme.
  • Time boxing : Setting a limit on how much time you spend on a task. Similar to time blocking, time boxing requires you to designate boxes of time for specific tasks. The twist is that you must finish the designated task within the time box. The time constraint creates a sense of urgency that sharpens your focus.
  • Pomodoro method : Setting a timer while working on one task and taking regular breaks. This is a variation on time boxing that calls for 25-minutes of focused work on a single, clearly defined task followed by a 5-minute break with a longer 30-minute break after every four focused sessions.
Something beats nothing . High performers work for fifty-two minutes and then break for seventeen minutes.
Moving beats stationary . One study showed that hourly five-minute walking breaks boosted energy levels, sharpened focus, and “improved mood throughout the day and reduced feelings of fatigue in the late afternoon.”
Social beats solo . Research in South Korean workplaces shows that social breaks—talking with coworkers about something other than work—are more effective at reducing stress and improving mood than either cognitive breaks (answering e-mail) or nutrition breaks (getting a snack).
Outside beats inside . People who take short walks outdoors return with better moods and greater replenishment than people who walk indoors.
Fully detached beats semi-detached . Tech-free breaks also increase vigor and reduce emotional exhaustion.

Designate a place to add and organize your tasks that’s not your head: a pen-and-paper to-do list or a digital task manager like Todoist . By capturing tasks to come back to later, you can free your attention to focus on your immediate work, not remembering what you need to get done in the future.

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