You’ve heard by now the experts suggesting that you’ve failed to achieve peak performance, because your mind is spread too thinly across email, social media, text messages, phone calls and other distractions.

You’ve heard by now the experts suggesting that you’ve failed to achieve peak performance, because your mind is spread too thinly across email, social media, text messages, phone calls and other distractions.

Don’t check email in the morning, or at the office, or ever, they say. Focus on one thing and screen out the rest, they say. For many people, their advice is useless and possibly career-damaging.

It’s a bit like telling a parent of rambunctious young children that they’ll do their best parenting by focusing only on one child at a time. That may be true, but how long can you really lock the others in the bathroom?

Most productivity advice is geared for a world that most workers today don’t inhabit.Getty

Life doesn’t work that way, and increasingly, the workplace doesn’t either. These experts are too often clinging to an outmoded view of performance—one that’s far too close to a linear, factory-like notion of “maximum productivity.”

Avoid the Guilt Trip

In the process, they spread a thick sense of guilt around, making even star performers feel as though they’re slackers for not adopting that one special technique that could make them legends in their field.

For most people today, life is like handling a room full of screaming kids. In short, our work today tends to be managing chaos. Life is what happens while you’re busy trying to be “productive,” to paraphrase John Lennon. For most of us, the stuff that is “distracting” us is life, it is our work.

Q: What do you call someone who focuses on their work rather than on checking their messages?

A: Unemployed.

An article this week by workplace consultant Travis Bradberry argues that workers can achieve maximum productivity by intensely focusing on a task for an hour, followed by 15 minutes of downtime.

To be fair, “focus on one thing for a while and don’t be distracted” is solid advice for a sculptor or a musical composer, or for a novelist tapping on a keyboard in some remote woods. It’s good advice for someone performing quality control on an assembly line, although they may have been replaced by a robot anyway.

But most of us live in a multitasking world. And while many experts denounce multitasking, the fact remains that if your hotel employs a concierge who passes out when they’re approached by more than one guest at a time, you’re probably employing the wrong concierge.

In the meantime, it’s exhausting to hear experts proclaim, “If you just use such-and-such method to stay focused on one thing for X length of time, you’ll crush all those people who don’t.”

Not really. First of all, it’s not nice to crush people. Secondly, your job probably isn’t to win a contest to produce the most widgets in an hour. More likely, your job requires relating to many people—and responding as efficiently as possible to their many messages that zoom in from many angles at many moments.

You may have seen reports suggesting that you shouldn’t run your email program in the background while you work. The idea is that, if you get a notification ping and try to ignore it, your IQ begins to drop a few points because of the loss of concentration and the anxiety of knowing you’ve got a message from someone about something.

The faulty assumption is that this anxiety can be shut off as easily as quitting your Outlook. If a key leader or client or funder tends to call or email you frequently, and if they value a prompt response, then you’ll become even more anxious about what flood or fire you’ll be coming back to after your regularly scheduled exile. The plunge in attention, IQ, self-esteem—and quite possibly job status—will become even steeper.

Yes, an executive can have an assistant screen calls and alert them when an urgent one comes in. But that still means the assistant must constantly monitor those messages. And today more people are in the position of the assistant than the executive.

There Are Solutions

Cultivating a certain mindfulness, through meditation or reflection, can certainly help some people to be present and at peace in the midst of the daily information flood. Cultivating poise helps them to manage the chaos happily.

Some experts argue that the brain never really multitasks, and that it merely switches from one task to another. (It’s probably best not to be a passenger in their car while they approach a traffic light while chewing gum.) To some extent this is just semantics, but in any event, cultivating a sense of presence and poise can help us to switch seamlessly between tasks.

While most people are multitaskers who can’t afford to focus intently on one thing for an hour and then rest for 15 minutes, there are others at the other end of the spectrum: those who must concentrate for long periods without any hope of rest.

Surgeons come to mind.

“A operation can sometimes take four hours,” one spinal surgeon says. “You have to be ready for anything, and paying attention constantly. No breaks. It wouldn’t sit well with patients if their doctor took a 15-minute mental break just as things are heating up.”

And, of course, when that surgeon leaves the operating room to conduct other business, they have to re-enter the world of multi-tasking, that realm of constant tugs from every direction, that the rest of us inhabit.

So don’t beat yourself up for staying plugged in, juggling tasks and managing the chaos of life and work. Each person can find their own ways of doing so as efficiently and happily as possible, without needing to heed advice that is often better suited for another era or another world.

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