How taking on complex tasks can increase focus
Now Reading
How taking on complex tasks can increase focus

How taking on complex tasks can increase focus

Our mind tends to wander more when we perform mundane tasks, compared to when we perform novel and challenging ones

Gulf Business

I often find my mind wandering and need to work hard to draw it back to the present.

Mind wandering works well for me when I’m writing novels, as it unleashes my imagination and creative juices, but in my corporate day job, it’s probably not the best way to achieve a positive performance review.

Imagine my manager walking past whilst I was having one of these mind-wandering episodes, staring out the window watching the leaves on a willow tree billow in the wind, and him asking me: “Hey Rehan, you busy?”

And I reply: “Well actually no, I’m just ‘mind wandering’ at this time, but perhaps you can come back in about ten minutes when I’m done.”

I don’t think that would go down too well, do you?

Worry makes your mind wander
Research shows that our minds wander more when we feel worried or weary. We’ve all been there.

You are tired from the previous day, or you have some family matters that are affecting your performance at work, or you start thinking about your purpose in life and feel that your present job just doesn’t attune to it.

Take on complex tasks 
One way to reduce the amount of time we aimlessly mind wander is to deliberately make our tasks more complex and take on more complex ones.

In his book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests we are most likely to enter into a flow state when the challenge of completing a task is roughly equal to our ability to do so, and we become totally immersed in the task.

When our skills greatly exceed the demands of a task, such as doing data input for half a day, we end up feeling bored. When the demands of a task exceed our skills, such as having to give a presentation we are not prepared for, we feel anxious.

However, when the demands of a task are roughly equal to our ability to do that task – reading a pleasurable book, playing a sport we have a high level of proficiency at, strumming an instrument, painting on a
canvas – we are a lot more likely to be fully engaged in what we are doing.

One of the tell-tale signs I encountered that encouraged me to move jobs in the past was when I found my mind often wandering off the tasks I was doing, as the tasks were not difficult enough to consume my attention.

In other words, I could do a lot more, and was being underutilised. I’ve also had the opposite experience, when I felt anxious at work because I realised that my skills at the time were not a good match for the tasks

I had to do as part of the job. In both cases, I sought out new opportunities where I had a better match with the skills I had to offer and the difficulty of the tasks.

When we cognitively stretch our minds and our tasks are complex enough to consume our attentional space, we have greater scope to grow our intelligence.

Alfred Binet, the inventor of the IQ test, believed that children’s intelligence was changeable. We’re often led to believe otherwise.

Binet, a Frenchman working in Paris in the early 20th century, designed the IQ test to identify children who were not profiting from the Paris public schools, so that new educational programmes could be designed to get them back on track.

Without denying individual differences in children’s intellects, he believed that education and practice could bring about fundamental changes in intelligence.

Here is a quote from one of his major books, Modern Ideas About Children, in which he summarises his work with hundreds of children with learning difficulties:

“A few modern philosophers assert that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity, a quantity which cannot be increased. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism … With practice, training, and above all, method, we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgment and literally to become more intelligent than we were before.”

Binet is arguing against the belief our intelligence is fixed and is offering a hopeful message that, with practice, training, and method, we can increase our attention, our memory, our judgment and literally become
more intelligent than we were before.

Rehan Khan is a principal consultant for BT and a novelist

Also read: How to measure your path of productivity

You might also like


Scroll To Top