How To Stay Focused On Your Work

(This article originally ran in OSP Magazine)

Daily Distractions
How many times have you found yourself running out of the door, rushing to get to work with a thousand thoughts racing through your mind? Think about your trip to work today. Were you focused on driving or were you multi-tasking, perhaps talking on your cell phone, checking your email on your PDA, or even putting on make-up or combing your hair? Or, if you weren’t doing these things, did you notice other drivers who were? Driving while distracted is a big issue, and it’s even getting lots of attention in the media.

The National Safety Council (NSC) is leading the charge to change cultural norms through legislative reform related to cell phone usage and driving. “Studies show that driving while talking on a cell phone is extremely dangerous and puts drivers at a four times greater risk of a crash,” said Janet Froetscher, president and CEO of the NSC. “Driving drunk is also dangerous and against the law. When our friends have been drinking, we take the car keys away. It’s time to take the cell phone away.”

A study from the Harvard Center of Risk Analysis determined that the annual cost of cell phone-related crashes is $43 billion (National Safety Council, 2009). Eliminating just one distraction could have a significant impact on the nation’s financial crisis.

While many people drive to their jobs and as a part of their jobs, stop and consider the impact of working while distracted. It’s a serious issue.

WWD: Working While Distracted
Ask any group of employees what distracts them and you’ll likely hear some of the following: personal issues, work pressures, cell phones, random thoughts, peer relationships, or the boss. Not all distractions are negative. How often have you found yourself drifting off to thoughts of that upcoming vacation, the next sports event, or what you’re having for dinner? Many workers will admit to having these disruptions frequently throughout the day, and yet they often don’t get the connection between distractions and unsafe behavior.

Distractions are often at the root of many incidents that involve personal injury or equipment damage. Yet, if we are too focused on work, we can find ourselves “in the zone” — working without being conscious of what’s going on around us. This is equally dangerous since conditions can change without our awareness if we’re not careful. Situational awareness is a key factor in remaining safe on the job and elsewhere.

Sometimes employees learn their tasks and understand their jobs so well that they talk about something being so easy that they can “do the work with my eyes closed” or “that’s as easy as falling off a horse.” What they are describing is unconscious competency.

The Cure for the Unconsciously Competent
The idea of unconscious competency is one that comes from adult learning theory, namely the “conscious competency learning model” (Chapman). This model describes 4 progressive stages:
1. unconscious incompetence,
2. conscious incompetence,
3. conscious competence, and
4. unconscious competence.

This model is often ascribed to the way we work as well as the way we learn. Unconscious competency basically means that we’ve learned to work in such a way that we do it without thinking. For example, think about how you drove home from work yesterday; perhaps you got home and realized you didn’t even recall having driven the route you always take.

It’s essential that every worker understands the dangers of becoming so competent at his or her work that it becomes routine or monotonous. That’s when the distractions can occur without warning.

Try these techniques to keep yourself conscious of the work at hand and of the risks around you:

1. Get grounded in safety.
From the moment your feet hit the ground, think safety. Think about what you’ll be doing today and what the risks might be. Start with high awareness. (A good strong cup of coffee may help!)

2. What to wear.
A popular cable television show is called “What Not to Wear” – it’s much more about fashion than safety. Have your own “show” and think about what you need to wear to be safe, including personal protective equipment, fire retardant clothing, steel-toed shoes, safety glasses or sunglasses, etc. Be the best dressed when it comes to safety.

3. Stay out of The Zone.
Sports psychologists and athletes talk about being “in the zone” – a mental state where performance is enhanced and anxiety is reduced. For workers, particularly in hazardous environments, being in the zone is not the goal. Several times during the day, no matter if you’re at work or not, take a break and consider how you’re working. Are you “in the zone” – in a state of unconscious competency? Are you aware of the conditions around you? What has changed since you started your task? Take the time to refocus on what you’re doing. Being “in the zone” may not be the best place to be.

The Goal: Consciously Competent
No matter if you are a highly trained expert in your craft or if you are just learning what it takes to do your job, make your goal to be consciously competent – one who knows what it takes to do the work safely and one who stays focused on what’s going on in the work environment. Use the three techniques to make it a day where nobody gets hurt.

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