Neuroscience suggests that the average optimal focus time, or attention span, is around 45 minutes.
However, that average is made up of some people with the attention span of a goldfish (ok well maybe a fraction longer) and some people who relish focusing on something for a much longer period of time.
So, given that no two brains are the same it doesn’t necessarily make sense to assume that your focus time is 45 minutes. Therefore it may not make sense to structure our days assuming your focus time is 45 minutes either.
So what is my optimal focus time?
Firstly we like to call this “natural pace”. Optimal focus time sounds like you are going to be able to identify your exact number of minutes of focus time and conquer your day by structuring your day to that magic number. Ah – if only it were that simple…….
Instead you are likely to have a range of optimal focus times, depending on biology, and also depending on your interest in the task, whether it takes you to a state of flow, the time of the day you are doing the task etc.
So natural space is more like a spectrum ranging from less than 10 mins of focus time for some people at one end of the spectrum. We call these people “fast-paced”. And maybe up to 60-90 minutes or more for those at the other end of the spectrum. We call these people “slow-paced”.
Let’s look at an example…
Let’s say we have two people who do exactly the same job and have several tasks to complete by the end of the day.
The slow-paced person is more likely to start with one task and do it until its done. Then move to the second task, and then to the next task. They are happily able to focus for more than around 50-55 minutes – up to hours at a time – depending on their pace.
The fast-paced person is more likely to start with one task, then in anywhere from 10-35 minutes (again depending on their pace) they might move to another task to keep them interested, then they might jump to the final task and do 10-35 minutes of that, and then jump back to one of the other tasks.
And then of course we have our balanced friends around the middle of the spectrum who have an optimal focus time of generally somewhere between 35-55 minutes.
So which pace is best?
Let’s be clear, all natural paces are absolutely perfect! You should embrace your natural pace and so should those around you.
The key is how we structure our work and also our leisure time to suit our natural pace.
And it’s probably a good time to raise an important note here. We are NOT saying that fast paced people are better at multi-tasking. We are saying that they are better at single task switching.
They are still able to focus intently on one thing but just for shorter times.
We don’t care about the length of the focus time for productivity, but we do care immensely about the quality of that focus time.
Enter work pace and leisure pace
The trick is to work at the pace that suits you best. If your work pace is different to your natural pace, you will be overspending cognitive energy (“energy credits” in our speak) and you’ll be on a fast or slow track to burnout, depending on the size of the pace differential.
For example, if you constantly interrupted the slow-paced person every 20 minutes when they ideally wanted to focus for 60 minutes at a time, they would get frustrated and burn through energy credits.
Conversely if you only gave the fast-paced person one task at a time they would be productive for say 20 minutes, and then they would probably go and interrupt other people when they got bored of that first task.
And of course on the weekend if you are more slow paced and find yourself rushing around doing chores, being a taxi for the kids, and racing between social engagements, that’s not an energising way to spend your downtime.
Does this mean that some fast-paced people may have ADHD?
Yes a number of our fast paced friends at the higher end of the spectrum have been diagnosed with ADHD. And this may sound harsh – but so what?
For many of our fast-paced friends who get a diagnosis, nothing much changes. They have already learned how to structure their days to work with their fast-paced brain.
Everyone should understand their personal pace and embrace it, and be accepting of the personal pace of other people around them.
Is technology impacting our focus time?
Short answer – not really. We are seeing this have more of an impact on the quality of our focus and probably our work pace, rather than our natural pace.
Given the rise of overstimulation in our brains, thanks to notifications and social media scrolling, there is no surprise that there is frightening research indicating increases in ADHD as a result of this overstimulation.
All of this overstimulation of rewards of likes and comments and notifications is triggering excess dopamine release in the brain, which means we are increasing our levels of addiction to social media and notifications and therefore messing with the quality of our focus.
It appears that not all ADHD cases are purely biological. And if we let the technology control us, instead of the other way around, ADHD is only going to become more prevalent.
So the trick is to make sure we control the technology Regardless of your pace it’s important to switch off notifications and access information on your terms, according to your natural pace.
Perhaps I’m lucky I don’t have kids! Given the research that is emerging, I wouldn’t be very popular, as I probably wouldn’t let them have devices until their 25th birthday!
Can I measure my natural pace?
Yes – we have a “pace indicator” to help people to determine where they sit along the spectrum on a scale of 1-100 for their natural pace, but also for their work and leisure paces.
The higher the number of your natural pace, the faster paced you are and the shorter your optimal focus time.
The lower your natural pace score, the longer your optimal focus time.
The bigger the gap between your work and leisure paces from your natural pace, the higher your propensity for burnout.
Natural pace goes a long way to helping you to understand your range of natural focus time so that you can structure you work and your leisure to be more in line with your natural pace.
This helps you to spend way less cognitive energy to get more done, in less time, in a way that feels easier.
This helps us to avoid sickness and burnout.
If you are interested in learning more about personal pace to increase productivity and reduce burnout for you (and/or your team), why not book your Performance Call with us?