The 21st Century Productivity Killer

Improve Productivity

Productivity is a hot topic. Never have we had more tools to help us work better and faster. This makes sense: time has a monetary value, so the more we can accomplish in a given period of time, the better. Unfortunately, many of the productivity enhancements we’ve seen since the turn of the century have come at a high cost. Now more than ever, people are distracted. The failure to focus on one thing at a time is having far-reaching, negative consequences.

Before I begin, I want to acknowledge that focus and attention are complicated issues. There are a variety of factors that can impact an individual’s ability to focus, including Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), alcoholism, drug addiction, stress, medications, depression, etc. In no way do I wish to minimize these situations, or suggest that these challenges are easy to address. If you are dealing with something like this, professional expertise may be the best course of action.

Meanwhile, it isn’t difficult to observe that the digital age is changing the way we work, relax and relate.

For example:

WE USED TO…          NOW WE…

Watch TV                   Watch TV, while checking our phone or surfing the Internet

Talk on the phone     Talk on the phone, while walking or driving

Share a meal              Share a meal, while searching Google about topics that have come up in conversation

Work/study               Work/study, while toggling to check social media

Read an article          Try and read an article, while suppressing pop-up advertisements and videos

Converse                    Converse, while checking email and answering texts

Furthermore, a tolerance for interruptions has become woven into the fabric of our lives. We particularly see this in social settings, where behaviors that once would have been considered rude (e.g. checking your phone while out to dinner) are now quite common and normal.

Admittedly, the reach of technology is not all bad. After all, the ability of a school to quickly contact the parent of a sick child is a wonderful thing. The challenge comes as we try to establish healthy boundaries for our attention.

Much research has been done to show that the human brain is most productive when focusing on one task at a time. While individual attention spans vary, it is generally agreed that 15 focused minutes are usually more productive than 25 interrupted minutes. Distractions require us to arrest our thought, refocus elsewhere and then do the same to get back on track. Sometimes, these interruptions are worthwhile, but many times they are not.

In addition to the loss of time required to refocus in the moment, there are other costs to living in a perpetually distracted state, including:

  • Forgetting where we put things because we aren’t paying attention to where we are putting things down.
  • Miscommunicating because we aren’t fully “tuned in” to conversations.
  • Making errors because we are trying to do multiple things at once.
  • Lacking complete understanding because we are skimming through letters/articles/books to get through them faster.
  • Failing to complete tasks because we are getting redirected mid-course and running out of time.

Finding solutions to this modern challenge is difficult. The landscape and rhythm of life has fundamentally shifted:

  • We are expected to be “on call” and reachable at all times.
  • We are in regular communication with people in other time zones.
  • We have become accustomed to being able to “look it up” instantly
  • We expect to be able to buy, eat, watch and inquire 24 hours a day

Nonetheless, acknowledging that there are costs to this lifestyle is the first step in wanting to make efforts to manage the situation.

If you are feeling drained, or see your productivity suffering, here are a few strategies to try:


In essence, this is when you challenge yourself to be fully present in the moment, taking in the sight, sound, smell, taste and feel of it. It can be surprising how wonderful a breeze feels if you take a minute to stop, think about it and breath it in. My friend and fellow blogger Linda Samuels has written extensively on this topic. You can read more on her blog here.


Many times I hear parents reprimanding their children for staring at their phones or being online, all while they are behaving in exactly the same way. Rather than locking horns with your children, talk about how all of you need to find ways to alleviate the constant pressure to multi-task. Gather ideas from all family members, and be willing to experiment. The goal isn’t for parents to be the screen police; it is to be an ally in the struggle to stay connected while also achieving goals and finding joy.


The message today seems to be that if you are only doing one thing at a time, you are being inefficient. The opposite is actually true. Productivity isn’t about constantly doing multiple things or performing at peak level for 8 hours straight. Just as with interval training for the body, productivity flourishes when we mingle periods of focused activity with periods of rest and refreshment. Don’t feel guilty if you need to put the phone down, get up and walk around or turn off alerts in order to stay focused for a period of time. The Pomodoro Technique provides one approach for blending focused sessions with small breaks in between.

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Few things are more frustrating than feeling like you are running on the treadmill and not getting anywhere. In this highly demanding digital environment, what are you doing to enhance your productivity?