- Dr. Praveen Tipirneni says modern habits that seem convenient are hindering our ability to concentrate.
- Rather than tackling difficult tasks first during the day, we check emails and texts — easy work.
- He believes effective communication should be structured instead of taking things as they come.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Whenever I walk into a library, something clicks in my brain. The sight of an unmistakable banker’s desk lamp with a green glass shade primes me to focus and concentrate.
And I’m sure that’s the result of about a decade’s worth of higher education. Thousands of hours in the quiet section of the library have taught my brain to associate that environment with study and concentration.
The interesting thing is, modern technology has a similar effect on us. But instead of priming our brains for focus, we’re being taught to seek instant satisfaction and stay distracted.
Our habits are becoming less aligned with some of the most important goals we want to accomplish. That misalignment can lead to plenty of problems in our work lives and relationships.
Modern habits have created ways of working and living that feel more convenient but are actually hindering our ability to concentrate. This lifestyle is epitomized by three bad habits:
1. Not starting on the hardest task first
Most people don’t want to immediately start the day by working on their toughest tasks and those difficult conversations are put off as long as possible. Instead, we answer emails, go to meetings, jump on conference calls, or text colleagues.
It all feels like a lot of work. Realistically, it’s not hard work — it’s communication.
When you spend large portions of your day on easily repeatable activities, you’re wasting time that could be used for your most difficult challenges. But you’ve been programmed to respond to the stimuli of messages, alerts, and vibrations, which means if you want to break out of this cycle, you have to structure a proper working environment or ritual.
You may need to do something radical or ritualistic to accomplish this.
For myself, much of it comes down to physical exertion. I exercise more or less very early every morning; running, cycling, and/ or weights. With a modern smartphone, you practically have your office with you on a run. I often tell people to call me when I know I will be in the middle of a run. And often make a call between miles.
There’s a particular combination of mental clarity and a feeling of strength that comes with running. That feeling is especially conducive to difficult conversations.
It will be different for you. It may be less extreme. But experiment with these ideas, and find what works for you.
2. Having tunnel vision
Ask anyone working in strategic planning at a company, “What is your biggest challenge?” They’ll all give the same answer: getting the future to compete with the present. It’s very difficult to focus an organization on the future when they are occupied with day-to-day fires.
It’s the same at the individual level. Your current self is only concerned with the present moment. Skipping a workout, attending a happy hour, waiting until next week to call a friend — these are all things your current self usually prefers to do. What you’d rather do at the moment is often the direct counter to your stated goals.
We spend our lives somewhat on auto-pilot. Rituals, habits, and instincts often dominate our day-to-day behavior. Developing a strong vision of your future requires an ability to pause.
Dysfluency (somewhat the opposite of fluency) is an academic term in the educational literature that means the level of difficulty of a mental task. You need to put in the mental effort and push your analytic reasoning for dysfluent tasks.
Paradoxically, when things are harder to learn, you understand the material in a deeper way and remember the material far longer. There was one study where more difficult to read fonts led to a better comprehension of the material. Another study strategically introduced confusion and surprisingly showed that students had a deeper working knowledge.
These concepts can be applied to our daily lives.
A couple years ago a baseball shattered the front windshield of my car. Something happened to the electrical system, and the car couldn’t hold a charge for very long. Each day, I would have to jump it at least once. For a couple of months, I didn’t fix it.
That dysfluency enormously slowed me down.
I couldn’t just run out the door and immediately take off. Virtually everything changed — my alarm wake-up time, when and what type of meals I prepared, and I even switched clothes to athleisure for versatility.
When was the last time you were forced to rethink everything, challenge all your basic assumptions about getting yourself out the door in the morning?
You could deliberately complicate your work and take on new challenges: take notes and summarize meetings and conferences, give talks, go beyond reading information to playing and engaging with data, develop a graphical representation of a series of data, take an infographic and turn it into a paragraph. After studying a journal, record yourself summarizing it.
Relentlessly add dysfluency. Break your daily autopilot way of thinking.
3. Communicating in an ad-hoc manner
In the modern office, there’s an almost endless communication style driven by friction-free apps on our mobile devices. There are few situations that require this continuous ad hoc communications.
When I was a young physician in residency, I bought a cell phone. These phones were just appearing, and I kept it in the glove compartment of my car for patient emergencies. If necessary, I could call from the car to help with a life-threatening situation — even in a traffic jam.
But in those three years of medical residency, I only remember one time when I pulled over, plugged in the phone, and called the hospital.
But in the hospital, where communication is effortless, there is a non-stop, ad-hoc buzzing of pagers. Introducing even the tiniest amount of friction dramatically changes the amount of communication — in this case, with no change in outcome of patient care.
Fast forward 25 years, this friction has all but disappeared. Effortless and inexpensive communication has exploded with social media,
, texts, and email because everything slows when we constantly send messages back and forth with little purpose. Large projects take more time because each person has to sift through a cascade of messages, some of which hold important information, others that contain nothing useful.
Structuring your days and weeks to communicate effectively requires more effort than taking things as they come. It requires batching talking points until staff or one-on-one meetings. This does require upfront planning, but you’ll be rewarded by people’s focus, leading to a greater sense of control over your time and life.
A bit of structure can even virtually eliminate meetings. As relayed in this tweet, Andy Grove of High Output Management describes how you can replace standing meetings with 2-minute meetings.
I keep a running list of all the questions and discussions I need to do with people. I also know I will run into these people in the span of a week, so when I run into them, I have a full list of questions and comments ready. If not, I can just pick up the phone — though that’s rarely required.
In the end, all these bad habits really come down to a lack of structure, lack of intent, and an overreliance on technology to make life more convenient. Tame these one step at a time.
Praveen Tipirneni, MD is president and CEO of Morphic Therapeutic Inc., a biotechnology company.
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