How often have you looked at the clock stunned because even though you’ve been scrambling all morning, it’s now noon and you have no idea where the time went or what you’ve actually accomplished? There are sound reasons why it’s so hard for us to stay focused — and fortunately there’s research that shows what we can do about it.
One of the most effective tactics for staying on task is to bring purpose to each moment of your work. That might sound daunting — and it does take work — but mindlessly performing tasks (think about slogging through emails or conducting meetings on autopilot) is a recipe for inefficiency, disengagement, and even poor health. On the other hand, the benefits to our productivity, well-being, and health of having a clear sense of purpose — even in our most trivial tasks — are well established. In one study of 106 male employees at a large Japanese IT firm, a higher sense of purpose as well as a sense of interdependence with coworkers was correlated with lower inflammation as well as a higher viral resistance in the bodies of the workers. Research has also shown a connection between a sense of purpose in our personal lives, and benefits including lower hypertension; reduced risk of strokeand Alzheimer’s disease; and even increased longevity.
If we are clear about what we are meant to be tackling from moment to moment, and understand what our work amounts to, our sense of purpose increases and our stress decreases. To accomplish this, we need to constantly track where we are putting our attention. This tracking is known as meta-cognition, which is a practice that allows us to tap into a sense of purpose within what might seem like the most menial of tasks. Think of this as turning on your own internal project manager.
This isn’t always easy to do — our mind is easily pulled away from the task, conversation, or challenge at hand, especially if we find it uncomfortable — but you can improve your ability to do it with practice. For those who already take time to meditate at work, tracking your attention allows you to take what you practice in meditation and apply it to your most basic tasks.
The goal is to bring a clarity of purpose to every moment and every task, or at least a higher percentage of them (let’s not try to make ourselves crazy). Here’s how.
Act on purpose. The first step is to understand how your daily work connects to both your personal goals and the goals of the organization. Ideally you already have a sense of this and have even talked about it with your manager. But if you haven’t, it’s not too late.
Let’s start with personal goals. What do you love? What are you good at? And, of course, what were you hired to do? Get clear on why you are in this particular job, what your trajectory looks like, and how you can apply your talents to support your career aspiration. You can employ the principles of job crafting to do this: take stock of your role and reflect on which aspects of it play to your strengths.
Now for the organization’s goals. How does your job map to the overall goals of the company? You can assess this by articulating for yourself how your job contributes to the end game. For example, you may not be responsible for managing the bottom line, but you could make a list of ways that your daily decisions and contributions impact the company’s profitability. Making this tangible connection can be both clarifying and empowering.
Once you’ve done this for yourself, sit down with your boss to discuss the connections you’ve made and get their input. They may have insight into your strengths, role, and the organization’s goals that will strengthen those connections.
Map your plan. Like most people, you likely have dozens of tasks that you can be doing, so you need to understand which tasks, in what sequence, will amount to the greatest output. Create a roadmap where you identify which tasks are critical and which are less immediate. Then estimate how long it might take you to accomplish each task. With this information you can plot out your work so you know what you should be focusing on and when.
Fridays are a good time to check in with your internal project manager. How well were you able to bring your attention to each task? Did you execute the plan that you laid out for the week, bringing a sense of purpose to each activity? Remember, though, that your roadmap isn’t meant to be written in stone. In fact, planning and honing your attention should equip you with the confidence to jettison a plan, say no, cancel, or delegate if necessary so that you can consistently focus your time where it will best serve your end-goals.
Uproot your distractions. When you don’t know exactly where you should be focusing your attention, it’s easy to seek out tasks that bring an immediate sense of accomplishment but don’t actually amount to progress against your goals. For example, you may be in the habit of checking and responding to email before tackling other projects or you might focus on your inbox simply because you’re not sure what to do next. Or maybe you’re letting yourself get pulled into other people’s meetings and projects because you’re falling prey to what David Grady, TED speakerand creator of the viral video on ineffective conference meetings, calls “mindless accept syndrome.” Of course being generous to and collaborating with your coworkers is good, but not when it takes you away from what you should be working on.
By naming your distractions — and the root cause of them — you can catch yourself and return your attention to those tasks on your priority list that will produce a greater sense of meaning.
It’s too easy to allow entire days to pass in a blur without being able to articulate what you’ve actually done. Instead, realize that your days are made up of thousands of discrete moments passing before you and you can consciously choose to make the most of them. Knowing what you are doing and why allows you to not only feel accomplishment in doing your work well, but also gives you a more fulfilling sense that your days actually matter.