Time Management and Professional Development in the Age of Distraction

Attention spans are shrinking.

That is not one of those anecdotal facts that you think is probably true. Researchers have documented the average attention span for focus on a single piece of stimulus in the year 2000 was 12 seconds, and by 2015 that had fallen to 8.25 seconds, and there is every expectation that the 2025 update on this ongoing study will see a further reduction in how long anyone will give something their full attention.

Another study on how long the average person will devote their uninterrupted focus to a piece of content on a screen began in 2004 with an average of two and a half minutes. As of last year, that time has fallen to an average of 47 seconds before we switch to something else. We may or may not come back to what we were doing, but undivided focus on a computer, a television, a tablet, even a phone has been in freefall for the last twenty years with no sign of that trend turning around.

This is a blog for Executive Platforms’ network of business leaders, so let me put this in terms of people doing their jobs. When given a work assignment, it is very rare to get even twenty minutes of uninterrupted focus into that task before a distraction diverts someone’s attention. If that interruption is also work-related and requires action before it can be dismissed, there is a good chance the impacted worker will find themselves in a context switching/task switching mindset, which can have devastating impacts on productivity. One study of IT professionals found for each project someone multitasking was switching between, 20% percent of productive time was lost.

Let’s say that again a little more clearly. In an ideal world where people work on one project at a time without interruption, 100% of their productive time is committed to the completion of their task. The average worker moving between two equally important tasks will end up committing around 40% of their productive time to each task, with 20% lost to switching. That same worker when asked to multitask across three equally important tasks will commit only 20% of their productive time to each task, and now 40% of their time is moving from task to task, reorienting themselves as to where they left off and what still needs to be done, doing prep-work and mentally resetting themselves. The increase of 20% per task holds steady, to the point where someone working on four tasks will spend 60% of their time moving from task to task, and someone working on five tasks will spend 80% not actually making progress on any of those five tasks. By the time some hapless worker is committed to finishing six equally important tasks at the same, they are essentially no longer a productive person until they set a few of those projects aside to finish some at the expense of others. Otherwise, all their time is moving from task to task without making progress on any of them.

For anyone thinking this might be an exaggeration, Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity, a recent book by Dr. Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California Irvine, documents as much as twenty-five minutes of a workday can be lost every time a worker sets down one project and picks up another.

In a world where both work needs to be done, and also people need to learn new things to remain up-to-speed and productive in a rapidly changing business environment, what can be done to combat all the different demands on our time and attention?

It Begins with Finding a Comfortable Discipline

Why don’t we start off by acknowledging we don’t live in a perfect world? We are not always going to get to do one thing at a time all the way through without interruption, and there is no one right answer to giving each thing the time and attention it deserves. With that said, there are three things we can keep in mind as we go through our working lives that will allow us to feel comfortable as we work, and with a little discipline we can hold ourselves to these optimized ways of work.

  1. Your Schedule. Multitasking and context switching happens either when your schedule is too full, as we have already discussed, or so empty that you lack the structure to stay focused. Commit to what you are confident you can actually deliver on. Don’t put more on your plate until you are taking something else off to make room. Make the time to do what needs doing in a logical way that works for you.
  2. Predicting and Mitigating Interruptions. Everyone reading this has a pretty good idea where they are losing productivity. Maybe it’s checking email or Teams or Slack messages. Maybe it’s conversations with coworkers, clients, or superiors that derail ongoing tasks. No one can get away from these entirely, but perhaps they can be moved to a dedicated time of day —first thing in the morning or towards the end of the day— rather than intermittently and unpredictably throughout the working day?
  3. Reinforcing Routines and Good Habits. There are peaks and valleys in everyone’s productivity throughout the day, even without interruptions and distractions. Some people have a lot of energy first thing in the morning. Some people feel a lack of energy after lunch. Wherever you find your success, that’s where you should be tackling the big, complicated, demanding assignments. When you find something that works for you, make a point of making it work for you every day.

The Pomodoro Technique

It’s all well and good to talk about finding what works for you and then doing that, but at some point the rubber needs to meet the road. Of course, you can work however you have learned works best for you, but can we talk for a minute about a proven way to brute-force yourself to focus and make real progress on a task?

The Pomodoro Technique was invented by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s using a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato —pomodoro is Italian for tomato— to create preset stretches of strict ‘no excuses’ focus while also setting aside regular times for breaks that do not risk the context switching or productivity loss we have talked about earlier. Here’s how it works.

Step 1: Pick a task from your to-do list, ideally the one that must be done first and/or is most important.

Step 2: Set a 25-minute timer. This block of time is called a pomodoro, in honor of Cirillo’s kitchen timer.

Step 3: Work without interruption until the pomodoro is done. The more non-negotiable and disciplined you make this commitment to avoiding interruptions, the more productive you will be.

Step 4: Take a short break of five to ten minutes. Anything you wanted to check on during the pomodoro, you are encouraged to look into that now.

Step 5: Repeat steps two through four until the task is done. If you complete four pomodoros before the task is completed, take a longer break of between 15 and 30 minutes before starting the next 25-minute timer.

By having rigidly divided periods of disciplined work and breaks, you can make real progress on just about any assignment. It side-steps all of the challenges of multitasking by focusing on one thing at a time to the exclusion of all else until each task is completed or it is time for another short break.

The sheer novelty of applying such structure to a workday can produce more focused productivity than you would imagine possible. Pomodoros are often especially effective when a known deadline is approaching, and you can calculate how many pomodoros you have available to complete a given task. Few things focus the mind quite like a countdown.

Does it work all the time for everybody? No, of course not. With that said, if this is a new idea to you that you have never tried before and you need to get something done, I encourage you to give it a try. It works well enough that people are still talking about a novelty kitchen timer from forty years ago as an impactful time management tool, so there must be something to it.

Audio as Both a Means of Focus and a New Way of Multitasking Professional Development

Having talked about the pomodoro technique, it’s worth saying it’s all well and good to talk about a brute-force approach to getting things done one at a time, but that is not to say multitasking is by its very nature bad. In fact, there are many tasks we do that occupy our hands but not our minds, or our time but not our imagination, and in that lack of engagement there is an opportunity to easily multitask that will also keep us mentally occupied enough to eliminate other distractions and opportunities for our attention to be diverted.

Anyone who has ever had a radio playing in the workplace already knows there are benefits to having something in the background going on that you can engage with or not throughout the day without losing any productivity, but the 21st Century has also seen a boom in a new medium that can offer even more than that.

A recent Australian study —it should be noted Australia does seem to be slightly ahead of North America when it comes to podcast consumption— says podcast listeners consume an average of 4.3 hours of content each week, and 93% of podcast listeners hear the majority of each episode they choose.

Imagine what you could learn relevant to your working life if you could ‘find’ an extra four hours a week to hear about it with the freedom to pay attention and really think about what you were hearing? As just one example, I know a number of senior executives who organize book clubs among their teams to talk about new ideas to help their businesses. Here is just one of many podcasts that offer you the takeaways from non-fiction books ranging from business to biography to self-help. What would your personal and professional development look like if you could get just the best parts of a workplace book club given to you in 30-minute installments whenever you want?

In a world where media is chasing the public’s shrinking attention spans, the idea that there is long-form content with a growing and engaged audience is exciting. What is more, the screenless nature of podcasting often allows it to be consumed without context switching or productivity loss. As an example, people who play a game on their phone while watching television cannot do both activities as well as they could if they gave one or the other their full attention. Meanwhile, listening to a podcast at worst is no more distracting than having talk radio on in the background at work, but it can also build opportunities to learn something new into what has in the past been viewed as downtime like during commutes or exercising.

(This might be a good time to remind readers the Executive Platforms bluEPrint Podcast series is a thing…)

Final Thoughts

We could go on and on about different time management strategies, tools to help you focus, or opportunities to turn downtime into productive learning opportunities, but let’s be honest: The vast majority of people are not going to read a blog post longer than this, and if you don’t already have a few takeaways you want to think about further, this would be an odd place to start giving you ‘new content.’

There’s an important lesson in that, too. Making good use of your time and focusing where you need to focus should include a healthy self-appraisal for checking the value of what you are actually doing from time to time.

I have no doubt we will come back to this topic again in the future. For now, let’s remember:

  1. Attention spans are shrinking.
  2. Multitasking and context switching can quickly lead to spending more time moving between tasks than accomplishing productive work.
  3. There are strategies to mitigate some of these disruptions.
  4. If you can dedicate yourself to working on one thing at a time, the pomodoro technique has a strong track record of keeping people on task and productive.
  5. Podcasting is a wonderful opportunity to continue to learn and grow both in time that traditionally is not useful, and also during work tasks where screenless active listening will not distract from what needs to be done.