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Summary:

A Harvard study reveals what you probably already suspected: a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The trouble is, our minds are very likely to stray from the task at hand unless we’re doing things that tend to require our undivided attention.

Brain_-_Lobes

A new study by Harvard researchers reveals what you probably already at least suspected: a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The trouble is, our minds are very likely to stray from the task at hand unless we’re doing things that tend to require our undivided attention, like working out, holding a conversation, and, apparently most of all, making love.

The reason we manage to stay focused during those tasks is that they require us to remain present in order to guarantee success. That ability to stay in the moment also produces the side effect of satisfaction. Our happiness is never higher than when we have our mind on what we’re doing. That’s a good lesson for web workers.

Job satisfaction, looked at from the perspective of this study, has a lot to do with focus. And for people who work from home, that’s probably not great news. If you’re a remote employee, you generally have unfettered access to the Internet, which means you also have about a million things vying for your attention. You’re probably adept at multitasking, but that same ability to split your focus could lead to unhappiness, which would also lead to burnout.

Maintaining focus is easier said then done, however. So how best to keep your mind on one task? Break that task down to make it easier to identify what’s required to do a truly great job. The difference between really exceeding in the task, and just doing a “good enough” job, is all about attention. If every time you set out to do a task, you set higher standards for yourself than you did last time, you’ll have an easier time maintaining focus and avoiding a wandering mind.

You should also avoid compulsively checking your email, and turn off those audio notifications for new mail. It might be hard to do, depending on what kind of work you do, but even if you can manage to avoid the email crush for a few hours a day, that period of unbroken focus should help improve the quality of your day by quite a bit. Having email “quiet time,” or, even better, keeping specific times during which you open your email app, should make for better email communication, too, since you’ll be more focused on those conversations.

Focus isn’t easy to achieve, especially with so much potential for distraction at hand, but as a remote web worker you have certain advantages over traditional workers. You won’t be as distracted by coworkers, for instance. Also, you have more freedom to set your own schedule, so you can plan attention-heavy tasks for times when you’re less likely to be tired and more prone to distraction.

Even if your task is undesirable, focusing on it to the exclusion of all else will provide a greater sense of satisfaction, and should help you feel happier in your job. It won’t be easy, and work is one of the places your mind is most likely to wander, but if you’re aware and take an active hand in keeping present and in the moment, you’ll have a much better chance of getting things done.

What methods do you use to help you maintain your focus?

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  1. Robert Lockard Monday, November 15, 2010

    Wonderful article! I listen to music to keep myself focused. It seems like it would be distracting, but classical music, uplifting soundtracks and other types of music can put me in a mood for writing and concentrating.

    Your advice about not checking email while working hard on something is spot on. A few years back I was writing for a magazine and blogging and doing a million other things at once. I had to disconnect every once in a while from my email and phone to focus solely on my magazine articles because I knew they wouldn’t get done any other way.

    I’ve found myself getting distracted often lately because I have so many tasks, so I’m glad I read your article. I’m going to focus on getting one thing done at a time, rather than distracting myself.

    Thanks again for your great article!

    Sincerely,
    Robert Lockard

  2. people that live in the present only have frontal lobe damage…

    there’s a good book called “stumbling upon happiness” that has done extensive research about why people are happy and why they are sad.

    the frontal lobe responsible for planning is the last part of the brain to evolve and last part to develop, but it’s also vital to strategic thinking…

    be careful not to read too much into these articles as they don’t give you the entire picture of what’s going on with the brain.

  3. Justin P Lambert Monday, November 15, 2010

    I really appreciated this article because this is an issue I have routinely: my constant efforts to “stay connected” so as to grow my business will get in the way of efforts to actually do what I get paid to do, which is to write for my clients. Writing requires focus and attention, and those are assets at a premium when I’m working. Oh, the irony!

    Thanks very much for this information. The fact that studies prove I’m happier when I’m most focused makes all the sense in the world.

  4. These days I work alone, so disconnecting email is easy. When I worked for a large company I was constantly being asked by my manager “didn’t you read my email?” or “why didn’t you read my email?”.

    Explaining that I was too busy doing the work I’m paid for to keep a constant eye on email was NOT well received.

  5. I never knew that if you’re unfocused, you could be unhappy at your job. It’s hard to keep focus sometimes when you’re doing repetitive work day-in and day-out. Sometimes, you just feel bored and you may be longing for a change of scene. In my case, I simply plug into those binaural beats that help you get your focus sharp, or those music said to help improve your concentration. Then, I also give myself small rewards if I finish work by a certain time. This helps keep me motivated. — Issa@Ajeva

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