In a Distracted World, Solitude Is a Competitive Advantage

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Mike Erwin for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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“Always remember: Your focus determines your reality.” Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn shares this advice with Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars, but in our hyper-distracted work world, it’s advice that we all need to hear.

Technology has undoubtedly ushered in progress in a myriad of ways. But this same force has also led to work environments that inundate people with a relentless stream of emails, meetings, and distractions. In 2010, Eric Schmidt, then the CEO of Google, shared a concern with the world: “Every two days, we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization until 2003. I spend most of my time assuming the world is not ready for the technology revolution that will be happening soon.” Are we able to process the volume of information, stimuli, and various distractions coming at us each and every day?

A significant volume of research has outlined the problem with this onslaught of information. Research by the University of London reveals that our IQ drops by five to 15 points when we are multitasking. In his book, Your Brain at Work, David Rock explains that performance can decrease by up to 50% when a person focuses on two mental tasks at once. And research led by legendary Stanford University professor Clifford Nass concluded that distractions reduce the brain’s ability to filter out irrelevancy in its working memory.

There is no silver bullet to solving the complex problems ushered in by the information age. But there are some good places to start, and one of them is counterintuitive: solitude. Having the discipline to step back from the noise of the world is essential to staying focused. This is even more important in a highly politicized society that constantly incites our emotions, causing the cognitive effects of distractions to linger. In our book, Lead Yourself First, Ray Kethledge and I define solitude as a state of mind, a space in which to focus one’s own thoughts without distraction — and where the mind can work through a problem on its own.

The ability to focus is a competitive advantage in the world today. Here are two of several thoughts on how to stay focused at work:

Build periods of solitude into your schedule. Treat it as you would any meeting or an appointment. If you don’t schedule and commit to solitude, something else will fill the space. One need not be Henry David Thoreau here; 15-minute pockets of solitude are very effective. If we spend our entire workday sitting in meetings and answering emails, it leaves little space in our minds to do the hard thinking that is essential to good decision making and leadership.

Analyze where your time is best spent. Most of us have meetings that we can afford to miss, and most of us underutilize our energy because we have not allocated time to reflect and be rigorous about our priorities.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Mike Erwin is the co-author of Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude and CEO of the Character & Leadership Center. He is also the president of The Positivity Project and a Lt. Colonel in the Army Reserve, assigned to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point as an Assistant Professor in Leadership & Psychology.

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