The Hungarian American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified the psychological state of "flow" in 1975 — describing a state of deep immersion in a single activity or task. In this state, external "noise" is naturally muted. Research by McKinsey has shown that when professionals are in "flow", they are up to five times more productive.
Yet with the constant ping of email and smartphone notifications, not to mention social media chatter, we are kept in a constant state of "hyper-responsiveness". Put simply, modern workplace distractions are inhibiting your ability to get into the flow and do your best work.
Amid a never-ending barrage of digital notifications and information, maintaining deep focus and concentration at work requires an almost superhuman effort. Sadly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it appears that most of us are losing the brutal war for our attention — with lost productivity, higher levels of burnout, and overall unhappiness being reported from workplaces around the globe, according to Gallup's 2017 State of the Global Workplace report.
According to Udemy's 2018 Workplace Distraction Report, nearly three out of four workers (70%) surveyed agreed that training can help them cope with distractions, but companies aren't doing much to help.
For management accountants, the age of distraction represents a major workplace hazard. Indeed, the ability to do immersive, focused work has long been a critical professional advantage — with employers seeking out accountants who can delve deeper and provide the insight, interpretation, and innovation that focused work engenders.
Debbie Goodman-Bhyat, the CEO of Jack Hammer, a South African executive search company, explained the perils of today's constant demands on our attention.
"Each time you change your focus from one piece of information to another, one needs time to engage and re-engage — to get 'up to speed', so to speak," Goodman-Bhyat said. "The impact of this is an increasing loss of productivity as we jump from one thing to another many more times in an hour (or a day) than we might have done five or ten years ago. The frequent distractions also mean that we are less engaged in deep, meaningful work, and hence we miss out on delivering our best work."
We spoke to several productivity experts to find out how to combat distractions and develop the capacity for intense, immersive focus.
Master the art of mindfulness. Developing a practice of mindfulness is now widely recognised as a critical tool for staying focused and alert for high achievers — from esteemed captains of industry to superstar athletes. Basketball legends Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, for example, both worked with a mindfulness meditation coach throughout their careers.
Mindfulness is "the cultivation of an awareness of the here and now and can be developed through a range of techniques — the primary one of which is breathing", according to Goodman-Bhyat, who is also author of IntheFlow — Taking Mindfulness to Work. "And so taking regular 'breathing breaks' of three minutes at a time has been shown to assist with focus and concentration. It also assists in reducing stress and anxiety, thereby further increasing the ability to focus with less distraction from anxious thoughts."
Schedule regular focus sessions. It is valuable to "quarantine" your time in order to become fully attentive and immersed. With this in mind, consider scheduling regular focus sessions.
"For us, a focus session is a dedicated time slot in which a team member is working exclusively on your business," said Ian Meaker, the founder of Creative CFO, a South Africa-based financial services and business acceleration firm.
At Creative CFO, this concept is taken even further with three specific types of focus sessions: financial systems, bookkeeping, and financial management. During these sessions, Creative CFO consultants work on specific areas of a client's business — often with the client present. The separate sessions, eg, financial management, ensure that Creative CFO is able to go through and address internal checklists pertaining to the business whilst remaining focused and efficient.
"The idea is to create a fixed routine throughout the month, whilst remaining agile to priorities within each area of focus," Meaker said. "This concept was born as we began to take over more and more complex requirements for our customers. Over the years we have refined the concept, and it's now really a way for any individual to deal with organisational challenges and do great work."
Approach every task with curiosity. Luyanda Mafungo, client relations manager at Basalt Technology, said that curiosity naturally lends itself to deeper concentration and better results.
"I tend to approach my tasks with an attitude of curiosity, always asking: 'How can I grow from this?'" she explained.
By cultivating an attitude of curiosity, you reintroduce an element of fun and humanity into your work. To nurture curiosity, Mafungo encourages the use of visualisation exercises, whilst always keeping the "optimal outcomes" in mind. Don't be afraid to be creative about these exercises.
"No matter how digitally progressive we are becoming, we cannot risk being de-sensitised to the human factor that is required to power this intense digital leap into the future," Mafungo added. "So have fun getting acquainted with this superpower of deep concentration that lies within each of us, waiting to be unlocked. The joy is in the journey!"
Make your smartphone less distracting. Beyond adding key tools and techniques to your workday, improving your focus also requires subtracting what is detrimental and distracting.
To begin with, turn off all noncritical notifications while you are engaged in your core tasks.
Then, make your phone's wallpaper black — eye-catching wallpapers can be immensely distracting and tend to lure you back to your screen. On a similar note, use your phone's greyscale colour filter. Bright and colourful icons are distracting, and they give your brain a shiny reward every time you unlock your phone. By changing your phone's setting to greyscale, you will eliminate the positive reinforcement.
— Jessica Hubbard is a freelance writer based in South Africa. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.