Heltti | 1.6.2023

Organizational phenomena part 42: Where did my attention span go?

Now sharpen up. This update is a test to see if you can read it all in one go. Without external or internal interruptions.

Fragmentation of time and doing multiple things at once have become characteristics of today’s work life. Interruptions, information overload, and multichannel communication create a sense of urgency that we often try to solve by quickly moving on to the next task, even though the previous ones are still unfinished.

It has many names, as it should. It’s multitasking, doing multiple things at once, scattered focus, doing many things at once, and in the era of COVID-19, it’s even called “multipasking“. It’s when, on a remote workday, you do laundry while pretending to participate fully in a remote meeting, and you end up finding the missing red sock among the whites in the washing machine.

Are you still with me, or do you feel tempted to check one of the many communication channels? Did you see a notification on the screen or hear an alert? Well, let’s get back to the topic.

Unfortunately, studies show that attempting to do multiple tasks simultaneously by quickly switching from one task to another is simply a lousy strategy. It slows us down, increases the experience of stress, and exposes us to errors. And every task ends up being done a little worse.

Mistakes and declining work quality may require fixing. But at the same time, something even more worrying happens. Every restless moment of scurrying shapes our brains, and the tendency to have a scattered focus becomes an increasingly familiar path that we easily follow time after time.

Edward Hallowell, an American psychiatrist who has studied and treated attention disorders for decades, has stated that our current way of working produces a self-inflicted disorder that resembles ADHD for many people. According to various estimates, even up to half of individuals experience weakened concentration and consider deep thinking a thing of the past.

Breaking the cycle of multitasking is not easy. The quick dance from one task to another weakens our focus, which, in turn, exposes us to multitasking even more. Constantly dividing our attention can also be addictive itself because it triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with reward systems, just like other addictive behaviors.


To take a step closer to breaking the cycle, you can use this three-point survival plan:

  1. Stop digging the hole deeper. Be aware of those moments when you are most susceptible to losing focus. Add micro-breaks to your day to help break the hectic rhythm when necessary. Create a routine for yourself to stop multitasking when you notice it. But it all starts with being aware of it.
  2. Implement practices that support focused work. Have you already removed unnecessary notifications and alerts? Do you read emails and other messages in a rhythm that you have predetermined and communicated to others? Have you tried the Pomodoro Technique, where you focus on one task for 25 minutes and then take a 5-minute break? There is a wide range of different techniques available, so you can choose the ones that suit you best.
  3. Train the mind like a muscle. Even short mindfulness exercises, done regularly, have been scientifically shown to improve concentration. We can use the brain’s flexibility to our advantage. To start, sit quietly for five minutes daily and focus on your breathing. When you notice your mind wandering, gently bring your attention back to your breath. Gradually extend the practice time. Regular practice requires some routine development, and audio exercises, coaches, or courses can be helpful.

An important part of change is also agreeing on team and workplace rules and practices. The opportunity to focus is not a luxury but a necessary condition for success. Managing and creating a culture that supports focus is essential.

Multitasking can be a persistent habit, and freeing yourself from it may take time and patience. Be gentle with yourself and celebrate even the smallest victories along the way. Also, note that a burdened mind is more susceptible to distractions, so ensure sufficient recovery and quality sleep.

If you are interested in ensuring quality thinking and deep work in your organization, follow Heltti and explore our blog. Have you already checked out the “Self-Leadership of the Mind” training that allows your organization to break the cycle of productivity-eroding multitasking?

And congratulations for making it to the end of this blog! If you read this all in one go, you might belong to the minority. I wish you a focused and fulfilling day.

❤️ This week’s phenomenon was shared by Heltti’s organizational developer, Antti-Juhani Wihuri.

Read more about the “Self-Leadership of the Mind” training here!

The opportunity to focus is not a luxury but a necessary condition for success. Managing and creating a culture that supports focus is essential.