How long is a piece of string? Answer that accurately and you’ll have the solution for the optimal length of peak concentration. No help right? So let’s dig a little deeper.
Despite an average 40 hour work week and according to David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of Your Brain at Work, we only focus on our work for a mere six hours a week. Six. Ugh. No wonder then that productivity, the buzz word in modern society, dominating strategic meetings is the bane of any manager’s existence.
Concentration/flow/focus can be described as the ability of your talent to give a task their undivided attention or, according to the University of Cambridge, “the ability to direct one’s thinking in whatever direction one would intend”. Interesting considering that when I first transitioned into the space of exploring how humans perform at work, I quickly realised that despite some spectacular methodologies there was a distinct lack of consistency.
Some people, regardless of aptitude simply outperformed others. Well that was the perception in any case. I’d find leadership teams praising the employee who could stay focused for hours on end. The ones that arrived early and left late. What surprised me though, was the perceptions of those that didn’t have to take work home, the ones who worked fast and still reached the same quality results as their ‘hard(er)’ working colleagues.
On further exploration, it was typical to hear a boss encouraging their team to mirror the behaviours of their colleagues. “Mary gets great results by doing it like this … you should do it that way too” seemed to lead to further frustration for the poor colleague who couldn’t do it Mary’s way.
It makes sense then that concentration spans, like human performance, vary from individual to individual. While some can hyper-focus, others work best in fifteen minute spurts. A once size fits all approach is seldom effective when it comes to humans and measuring their performance, when it comes to concentration spans the solution lies less so in prescriptive time frames and more so in really uderstanding the individual, giving them opportunity to work outside of the company norm if that’s where (or when) they perform at their optimum. Assuming that concentration keeps office hours, prescribing a set structure, or offering the flexibility while still judging, is of little use to you, your team, and your business.
3 things to know upfront:
- Science tells us that every time the brain works on an idea consciously, it uses up measurable resources. These resources are limited, and without replenishment lead to fatigue, distraction, procrastination or low deliverable outcomes.
- Concentration spans, though never unlimited (see point 1 above) can expand. Brain games, minimising distractions and mindfulness help.
- Understanding your time organisation style brings perspective to your natural inclinations. I believe that personal success is determined by retaining authenticity. When something is too hard, despite your greatest intentions, chances are it’s not right for you.
3 ways to help your team concentrate better:
- Although I know it sounds counter productive, ban the expectation of working 24/7 and insist your team takes their breaks. Make sure you practice this yourself too.
- Encourage outcomes based performance measures rather than hour based measures. Having your team work when they work best, in an environment where they deliver their finest outcomes is truly to your advantage. While it might be essential for them to be available during limited core hours, having flexibility outside of those ours are beneficial.
- Provide flexible space for focused thinking. I call them pods or pockets of space where people can go to work well. A friend was telling me how he is super inspired to listening to classical music while working, I need quiet, daylight and preferably some fresh air. He likes to sit at a traditional desk, I want to take my shoes off and ensconce myself in a pile of pillows. Some are inspired by bright colours, others by muted tones. Speak to your people and identify what they need.
So how long is a piece of string …