Business Columns & Blogs

I need to block out distractions to focus on a task. You do, too

Nancy Napier finds she focuses best in a peaceful, not busy, setting.
Nancy Napier finds she focuses best in a peaceful, not busy, setting. Provided by Nancy Napier

I used to cringe when my high-school-age son disappeared under headphones to do homework. Likewise, at many work places, millennials insist they can multitask when they listen to music while working.

I’m the opposite. I need quiet, a space apart from the world, and no distractions if I am going to write, read or concentrate on something.

But recently, I have begun to wonder if we’re not all more the same than I realized.

A recent podcast and some new workplace research reporting on the negative aspects of open offices suggest that most people actually do need “space” to focus, when they are doing brain work. So perhaps they learn to manage the process in different ways.

Malcolm Gladwell, of “The Tipping Point” and “Outliers” fame, recently did an interview with Tim Ferris. In his podcasts, Ferris interviews high performers from different fields and, as he says, “deconstructs” their habits and methods of being productive. His questions range from “What do you do for the first hour of your day?” to “What book do you give most to other people?”

Gladwell, who worked at The Washington Post and at The New Yorker before going out on his own to write bestselling nonfiction books, is a prolific writer. So, of course, Ferris asked him whether he ever has writer’s block.

Gladwell said that working for a newspaper does not allow for writer’s block, so he’s never had it. You can’t go to an editor and say, “It’s just not working for me right now,” when there’s a deadline in an hour. In fact, Gladwell now spends the first half of his day in a coffee shop, writing.

How does he concentrate? Again, he talks about his newspaper days, when noise and talking and chaos was all around him (unlike today, he says, where the newsrooms are not so loud). So his lesson is: Find a way to focus even when things are noisy around you.

I saw an example of that focused concentration in my university’s College of Business and Economics building the other day. The lobby is a sunny two-story room, with a coffee shop, comfortable chairs and lots of places to work and chat. About 25 people sat in pairs or alone, and all but two were on some electronic device. They were completely engaged, writing, or reading (now, to be honest, I didn’t look to see if some were playing video games. I don’t want to spoil my image of hard-working students).

Their stillness, lack of fidgeting and intense looks certainly gave the impression that even when people say they are “multitasking,” they may not be: they are focused and able to block distracting input.

So I have a new challenge: how to be more focused in the midst of commotion. I’ll have lots of opportunity to practice. I’m about to take an overseas trip, passing through lots of airports and noise. Focus, here I come.

Nancy Napier is distinguished professor, Boise State University,