I recently read that human beings have around 25,000 thoughts a day. Add to that the fact that we are constantly inundated with novel stimuli from a friend’s new ringtone to the advertisements in the subway. Given this kind of chaos, it’s hardly surprising that our minds wander when we’re trying to focus on a given task.
Of course, paying attention is easiest when you’re engrossed in a task you find interesting. My mind never jumps over to an e-mail I have to answer when I’m watching “Fringe.” But the reality of work is that a lot of tasks are boring, and we have to do them well and efficiently anyway.
Fortunately, the solution is pretty simple — you just have to practice catching your mind in the act of wandering. Note how long you can generally focus before your brain decides to call it quits, and try to divide tasks into small chunks that can be accomplished in this time period. When I’m working on a book, for example, I write only three pages at a time because this task takes me roughly one hour, or the length of my own natural attention span.
If you must work on an assignment longer than your brain can tolerate, don’t chastise yourself when external thoughts start intruding. Accept a little off-task thinking, and then commit to another period of focus.
—Alexandra Levit is the author of “They Don’t Teach Corporate in College: A Twenty-Something’s Guide to the Business World” and a nationally recognized authority on workplace issues.
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