The Limits of Our Focus. And What to Do About It.

How long can you really focus your attention? When we’re in the zone, how long before we’re
pulled out? There are a couple of answers to these questions. One is a function of our physiology,
the other is a function of our conditioning and mental strength.

The Physiological Limits of Attention

We are physiologically capable of operating with full focus and attention for only about 90 minutes.
After this time, every marker of performance tends to start declining - problem solving, focussed
attention.... even reaction time. Physiologically, our performance ‘fuel tank’ tends to run out of gas
after 90 minutes. That may not seem like a long time, but 90 minutes of complete focus takes an
enormous amount of energy and IF you were able to focus for this long, you’d be amazed at what
you could accomplish.

The Actual Limits of Attention

I say ‘if’ for good reason. Most of us are incapable of actually doing this. Productivity studies tell us
that the average person switches tasks every three minutes and that 28% of our day is taken up
with interruptions. If you work an eight hour day, then you might be distracted for 16 minutes every
In a way, our distracted, multitasking, interrupted lifestyle has caused us to un-learn this level of
focus. Instead, we keep getting pulled out of our Performance Zone by things that are screaming
for our attention, or just things that make us feel good or make us feel busy.
In a recent study comparing multitaskers to single-taskers, they found that people who multitask
more have a greater propensity to be distracted. While we think we’re practising multitasking, it
seems we’re just honing our skills at letting things distract us.
And this is a problem.

Focus Vs Unfocus

In my workshops and keynotes around the country, this is a hot topic when we talk about
performance: Unfocused time is incomparable to focussed time.
If you’ve ever spent one hour at your desk procrastinating, being distracted and filling time with
reactive tasks (haven’t we all?) then you know that this unfocused work is also unproductive and
unfulfilling. Compare that with those moments where you might have spent a full hour with
complete focus - maybe you had the perfect mixture of a deadline plus some challenging work -
and you quickly realise that this hour of work is easily worth three or four of those distracted hours.
Time doesn’t matter. Our level of focus and attention is what predicts our performance. And if you
swap the above examples with other ways you spend your time - with family, friends, or pursuing
your own goals - then the same ‘focus > time’ equation holds true.

Building Focus

So thinking about this concept of staying focused, and thinking of our gap between what we’re
physiologically capable of and what we currently do, here are a few things you can do in order to
be more focused and get more done.


This is the simplest thing: just having the intention to work periods of focus into your day is a bit
stepping stone. Take a look at your meetings and other commitments, and then work out where in
your day you can have a 30-90 minute block of focus. Write these in your daily plan and stick to

2) Build Capacity

Like it or not, it is going to take some training to get you to a better level of focus. The more you
practice the better you get. But you need to start small: maybe try 25 minutes of full focus on a
particular task, and then take five minutes break. Gradually build this up. If you start too
ambitiously, you run the risk of practising being distracted instead of practising focus.

3) Find Your Sweet Spot

Chances are that you may never get to 90 minutes. I know that my sweet spot is 50 minutes focus,
with ten minutes break. If I do two rounds of that, I am way more productive than if I try to work for
two hours solid.

4) Shut Out Distractions

Distractions pull us out of focus. Turn off those email pings, put your phone on silent and when you
really need to focus, go find a spare meeting room so you’re not interrupted. Sometimes you’ll be
distracted by your own thoughts.... this is difficult to control, but don’t be tempted to chase those
thoughts down rabbit holes that take you away from what you’re trying to accomplish. I find it best
to write them down quickly and get back to what I’m doing.

Attention is the new currency. What gets our attention gets the best part of us. Try these simple
things to work with more focus and get more done every day. Or maybe use the same techniques
outside of the office work on your relationships and your own personal goals.

** Tony Wilson is a Workplace Performance Expert. His insights into performance science and it's
application in the workplace will make you re-think the way that you approach leadership, culture
change, high performance and productivity. Tony has an MBA and a BSc majoring in physiology
and delivers workshops and keynote presentations around the globe.
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