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Focusing your attention is the key to getting more done.

Fam Pract Manag. 2003;10(5):82

When was the last time you actually got to the “Cs” on your to-do list? Prioritizing a to-do list by A, B and C and working down the list is just one of many time-management techniques that won’t work in a world where demands for our time and attention are at unprecedented levels.

Instead of trying to manage our time, we should work on managing our attention. Focus management allows us to control the only thing we can during a day: where we focus our attention. With that in mind, here are some quick tips for applying focus management in your practice.

Get your life in focus

The next time you hear yourself say, “I was so busy today and didn’t get a thing done,” cut yourself some slack. Instead of trying to adhere to a to-do list, try focusing your attention on doing what is most important. What’s most important may change several times during the day, so you’ll need to be flexible, not methodical.

Get others’ attention and focus

Have you ever asked a colleague, staff member or patient for information, only to hear them say, “Oh, I forgot. I’ll get that to you.” It may well be that you didn’t have their attention in the first place. When you make a request, begin by calling a person by name. I guarantee if you call a person by name you will notice a faster and more accurate response. When your patients and colleagues realize you’re focused on them, they are likely to pay more attention.

Reconsider multitasking

Multitasking was the time-management tip of the 1980s and 1990s. In hindsight, we time-management experts may not have been giving you the wisest advice. For example, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine,1 the use of cell phones while driving quadruples the risk of having an automobile accident. Instead of multitasking, consider focusing on one task or one person at a time. The amount of time you gain from multitasking (e.g., using a speakerphone so you can talk to a colleague or patient and continue charting) may not offset the amount of respect you lose from colleagues or patients who consider your lack of focus impolite.

Remember that 1=4

If you’re not convinced to stop multitasking, consider this: Neurological research has shown that 1 unit of focused time is equal to 4 units of broken focus. Translate that to your busy life and you’ll find you can accomplish the same amount of work in 10 minutes of focused time as you can in 40 minutes if you aren’t focused. Choose to take 10 minutes of focused time and protect it from interruptions.

Create courtesy codes

Sometimes focus management fails because we procrastinate or distract ourselves with low-priority items. However, other times, colleagues, patients or staff want your attention for “just a minute,” ignoring your need to focus. To prevent this, get everyone thinking about focusing their attention. At your next staff meeting, ask this question, “How could we help each other better keep our focus?” Make a list of ideas and consider them as ways of being courteous to one other. Some ideas that other physician offices have implemented include the following:

  • Turn off all pagers and cell phones during meetings,

  • Don’t let a phone call interrupt a conversation,

  • Respond to requests promptly,

  • Show up to meetings on time to avoid breaking the focus.

Revisit the list after a few weeks and evaluate how well the ideas have helped you maintain your focus during the day. Make changes accordingly.

Create right-side-up agendas

Remember that people’s focus of attention is strongest at the beginning of a meeting. Tackle the more serious and demanding items first and put items of less impact or FYI topics last.

Forget about getting it all done

By increasing your ability to focus your attention, you relieve yourself from the futility of trying to get it all done. Increased technology has our world accelerating so fast that we can’t meet every demand. There simply isn’t enough time.

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