How often have you looked at the clock stunned because even though you’ve been scrambling all morning, it’s now noon and you have no idea where the time went or what you’ve actually accomplished? There are sound reasons why it’s so hard for us to stay focused — and fortunately there’s research that shows what we can do about it.
One of the most effective tactics for staying on task is to bring purpose to each moment of your work. That might sound daunting — and it does take work — but mindlessly performing tasks (think about slogging through emails or conducting meetings on autopilot) is a recipe for inefficiency, disengagement, and even poor health. On the other hand, the benefits to our productivity, well-being, and health of having a clear sense of purpose — even in our most trivial tasks — are well established. In one study of 106 male employees at a large Japanese IT firm, a higher sense of purpose as well as a sense of interdependence with coworkers was correlated with lower inflammation as well as a higher viral resistance in the bodies of the workers. Research has also shown a connection between a sense of purpose in our personal lives, and benefits including lower hypertension; reduced risk of stroke and Alzheimer’s disease; and even increased longevity.
If we are clear about what we are meant to be tackling from moment to moment, and understand what our work amounts to, our sense of purpose increases and our stress decreases. To accomplish this, we need to constantly track where we are putting our attention. This tracking is known as meta-cognition, which is a practice that allows us to tap into a sense of purpose within what might seem like the most menial of tasks. Think of this as turning on your own internal project manager.