Why is it that firefighters can work on emergency scenes for many hours with boundless energy, but can spend a 24-hour shift around the station doing routine activities, and be too exhausted by afternoon to take on a new project?
Part of the answer might lie in how much focus each activity demands.
It might seem counterintuitive that activities that require high levels of focus can also be energizing. But that is the conclusion many researchers have come to, according to Chris Bailey’s book, “Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction.” In this book, the author suggests that a lack of productivity is not the result of too much work, but rather the lack of enough complex and meaningful work.
Complex tasks demand attention, but menial tasks are subject to multi-tasking
Complex tasks demand more working memory and attention, so there is less tendency to be distracted or tempted to multitask. Recall your last big structure fire or multi-casualty accident scene. You probably weren’t thinking about anything else when you first approached these incidents, but instead had laser focus on the problem at hand.
Compare this level of attention to when you are doing routine tasks around the station – answering email, writing reports or doing station maintenance. It is tempting to want to multitask when engaged in these types of activities. It is also very easy to get distracted.
Distraction leads to divided attention, and divided attention results in less focus and quality of output. This diminished attention may not be a big problem if your primary task is vacuuming, a routine chore that does not require higher cognitive skills. But if you allow yourself to be distracted by texts appearing on your phone while a coworker is trying to tell you something important, there is a good chance you could miss a key part of the message the other person intends to convey.
How to avoid being distracted
Distractions are everywhere, and our brains are wired to be susceptible to anything that is novel, pleasurable or threatening. Advertisers know this and so do purveyors of social media. Be honest – when was the last time you sat down at your computer or tablet with a specific task in mind, only to surface half an hour later wondering why you had sat there in the first place?
The key to controlling your attention and focus is being intentional about it. If you go into your office to write a report, finish writing the report before doing anything else on the computer. Don’t rationalize that you really should check email first, just in case, and then, while you’re there, maybe make a posting or two on social media. And definitely don’t try to write the report at the same time you engage in these other activities. Focus and finish before allowing your attention to be diverted elsewhere.
The fire service at times seems designed for people with short or wandering attention – just when you start a project, an alarm comes in, someone comes to the door, some crisis arises that demands immediate attention. But this syncopated and unpredictable pace of work can also be an excuse for not getting much done. It’s easy to stay busy in the fire station; being truly productive is another thing altogether.
One way productivity can be lost is by squandering the best hours of the day on tasks that don’t require much attention. For example, many people are at their most focused and productive in the mornings, yet many fire crews spend these hours on things like house cleaning and physical training. These activities are important, but they are not ones that demand a huge amount of concentration or focus to complete. Moving the hands-on training up to an earlier slot and postponing housework until later might lead to more focus for higher priority tasks.
Put the phone down
And then there are phones. Everyone’s got one, and most fire departments allow members to have access to their personal phones nearly all the time. As a result, people are always checking in, at least 80 times per day on average (twice that rate for younger people). At a minimum, it means that most people are looking at their phones around every 12 minutes. And social media being what it is, they are likely to be distracted by something they see.
This level of distraction is bad enough for productivity and focus, but there is also the problem of redirecting attention after allowing distraction. Studies show that the average person requires at least a few minutes to refocus on the task at hand after a significant distraction, and complete focus can take over 20 minutes in some cases. People tend to work faster to compensate for interruption, which can lead to stress and errors.
How leaders can get the most productivity out of their crews
What can leaders do to improve focus among their crews? Banning phones entirely isn’t realistic, but it is possible to disallow them for certain activities. Capitalize on when people are most naturally energetic and focused to complete the most important work. And understand that sometimes less is more. As author Chris Bailey points out, “One hour spent hyperfocusing distraction-free can be worth an entire afternoon of distracted work.”
Perhaps most importantly, it is critical to lead by example. If you want your crew to put their phones down, then put yours away first. If one of your team wants to talk to you, give that person your full attention. Look for ways to get all firefighters involved, not just with busy work or routine tasks, but with work that will challenge and engage them to the degree that they won’t even want to look at their phones.