Focus Vampires

I’m sure most, if not all, of you have heard about emotional vampires or relationship vampires. Those are the people who suck your emotional energy and leave you feeling drained after they’ve been near you for any amount of time. Well, there is something else I have come to identify as “focus vampires” and they are not necessarily people. But they have that same effect of sucking all the focusing energy out of you so you end up feeling drained and incapable of completing any task on your to-do list, no matter how simple or complex.

By definition—well, my definition, at least—any distraction can be a focus vampire: a phone call from your BFF wanting to make plans for the weekend, the ice cream truck’s jingle if you have a sugar craving, or any emergency vehicle’s siren if you have 911-PTSD. It’s going to be different for everyone and the way we get our attention back on track after that distraction is also going to be different. For some it may take a few seconds, for others it may take hours. And depending on the severity of the distraction, it can take days, weeks, or even more.

Becoming a focus vampire slayer

In my case, the worst focus vampires are changes in my daily routine, particularly trips. I tend to be what we jokingly call OCD—not that I have been diagnosed with that disorder—and my relatively stable daily routine helps me focus on ideas, plans, and projects I want to develop in one direction or another. Some people think I have extraordinary amounts of energy but the truth is that I don’t. I am just very methodical about staying focused and taking one idea, one plan, or one project at a time from beginning to end. But if for some reason my daily routine gets changed, then everything gets scattered in my brain and I have the hardest time getting it all mentally organized again to the point where I can continue to work effectively until I can complete even a single one of the tasks I had already started.

The focus vampire of multitasking

Some people think they can take on several projects at a time and then, when they have a hard time seeing them through, they wonder if there is something wrong with them. Not likely. Chances are they are being victimized by these focus vampires and aren’t even aware of what is happening to them. “Based on over a half-century of cognitive science and more recent studies on multitasking, we know that multitaskers do less and miss information. It takes time (an average of 15 minutes) to re-orient to a primary task after a distraction…” according to a report in the Harvard Business Review.  Jon Hamilton, NPR’s correspondent for the Science Desk, explains: “Humans […] don’t do lots of things simultaneously. Instead, we switch our attention from task to task extremely quickly.”

So it’s not really a matter of having more or less energy. It is a matter of carving out some space and time purposely designed for you to plunge into some uninterrupted focused attention. Granted, this is not what is expected of us in a world of multiple windows open in your computer screen with emails and search engines while also texting on your phone and maybe having the TV on in the background. We are expected to focus on four, five, six different things at the same time. But that’s just not how our brains are designed to work. “Stanford University researcher Clifford Nass found that people who were considered heavy multitaskers were actually worse at sorting out relevant information from irrelevant details.”  Multitasking is the biggest focus vampire of them all.

Here is my solution and I admit this may not work for everyone, but it works for me. Pick one task, one project, one idea, one plan, and take it from beginning to end. Finish that one, then start the next one. If you get distracted by a different idea, a new plan, someone else’s project, put it on hold or the back burner, or write it down so you don’t forget that you want to pursue it, but leave it alone until you have finished the one you already started. If you get distracted by the phone ringing, or the hungry kids who need you to go fix them dinner, or the boss calling for an emergency meeting, make a parenthesis on that time you have identified as your creative time, but do come back to pick up where you left off. It doesn’t matter if after the distraction it then takes you an hour, a day or a week to get your focus back.

Just don’t jump to another project. Don’t abandon what you had already started just because you got distracted. This is the only way I know to defeat the focus vampires.

Feature photo by Johannes Plenio from Pexels. Body text photo by bongkarn thanyakij from Pexels.

Janis Palma has been a federally certified English<>Spanish judiciary interpreter since 1981. Her experience includes conference work in the private sector and seminar interpreting for the U.S. State Department. She has been a consultant for various higher education institutions, professional associations, and government agencies on judiciary interpreting and translating issues. She worked as an independent contractor for over 20 years in federal, state and immigration courts around the U.S. before taking a full-time job. Janis joined the U.S. District Courts in Puerto Rico as a staff interpreter in April 2002 and retired in 2017. She now lives in San Antonio, Texas, embracing the joys of being a grandmother. She also enjoys volunteering for her professional associations, has been on the SSTI and TAJIT Boards, and is currently on the NAJIT Board of Directors.

Read other posts by Janis Palma.

18 thoughts on “Focus Vampires”

  1. Gila says:

    Thanks Janis. Great article. Yes I intentionally turn the ringer on my phone off when I am working, and at times during the entire day. I ask my friends to text me before calling and have scheduled calls. I am not good with unscheduled calls as they are a focus drainer, especially if it is not an emergency and just chit chat. My routine now includes some screen free down time each day, walking outdoors, and scheduling assignments way in advance. I am interpreting in five different languages and need time to prep for each case. I also find that I need some quiet down time after simultaneous interpreting for prolonged time. With covid everyone is feeling isolated and is constantly on chit-chat social media. It can be all consuming and I resort to yoga and meditation to recharge and renew. Thanks so much for the article. It is good to know that I am not alone! 🙂

    – Gila Khabbaza
    Court Interpreter: Arabic, Farsi, Dari, French

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      Gila, congratulations on your wise decision to schedule calls and take time to recharge after long interpreting assignments. I hope others who read your comments will also follow your good example. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Vicki Bermudez says:

    What a novel idea…actually start and finish something before putting my attention onto the next thing? Wow!!!

    Now, do you have any ideas for two different kinds of people in regards to 1:) those who feel they have to do all of the daily important tasks before focusing any attention on the projects they are really interested in doing, vs. 2.) those who do the projects, and leave the details of daily tasks by the wayside (thus putting pressure on those of us who pick up the slack)?

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      Hi Vicki! About those who take care of important tasks first, I do believe that in a formal work environment you have to do that, otherwise it will be so distracting you will end up not being able to get anything done. At least in my case, that’s what would happen. As to the people who can’t or won’t handle project details, leaving those for others to pick up and see to it that a project is completed, I suggest a clear distribution of responsibilities when a project is to be completed by a group rather than an individual. That way each person knows exactly what is expected of them and be held accountable is their task is not done. Good luck!

  3. OMG, my house is full of vampires!!! Perhaps I should eat them as Giulani said of bats.

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      LOL, Jose! Maybe you need to open all the doors and windows in your house to let them out!

  4. Maria Knight says:

    Great article! Thanks Janis!

    There is so much truth to this! And I find the advice helpful!

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      Thank you, Maria. I am so happy that it is helpful advice for you.

  5. arnaldo b says:

    You know what is a problem for me in these Zoom-filled days? All the other browsers and tabs I have open all over my computer, as well, as my word processor if I’m doing a translation, etc. Almost impossible not to succumb to the siren song of everything else right at my fingertips, especially when no one is speaking, the judge stops the hearing to go look for a missing paper etc etc etc….

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      Yes! Exactly! Can you close all those other browsers and tabs? I know it’s not easy but that may be the only way to silence the siren song, Arnaldo.

  6. Gio Lester says:

    Janis, I think I read your mind. This pandemic thing has been very, very bad for my organization. That organization is what allowed me to do as many projects as I used to without any scheduling conflict. Now, it is crazy! And the one thing I noticed is that I am no longer as organized as I used to be. Thank you for setting me straight.

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      Oh, Gio, this pandemic and all that goes with it has wreaked havoc in so many ways it is impossible to quantify or even fully identify. I feel for you because being organized goes hand in hand with getting projects done, and I know how important that is for you. I hope this was my little grain of sand to help you out with that.

  7. Urszula says:

    Thank you, Janis, for reminding me to be aware of my ‘focus vampires’!

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      You are most welcome, my dear Urszula.

  8. John P. Shaklee says:

    Thanks for the reminder, Janis. What frightens me is it takes “fifteen minutes to re-orient to a task after a distraction.” My “focus vampire” is Facebook … I find reason to wander there. Solution: a mentor suggested a timer. I set one for anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour and focus on writing, a blogpost or bookwork.

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      Yes,, John, it is frightening! It means you waste fifteen minutes every time you switch tasks or get distracted. That timer is a great idea. Maybe others who suffer from the distractions of “focus vampires” similar to yours will follow your example. Send me an email sometime and let me know how it’s going.

  9. JANIS PALMA says:

    Actually, Alfredo, I know exactly what you’re talking about when you mention that “tunnel vision” while interpreting. It’s also what some people call being “in the zone”. It’s a great feeling! And then, inevitably, the focus vampire, the Párgula as you said, comes when you least expect it. But the good news is that you can always go back to the “zone” fairly quick once you have reached that level of experience. Thank you for sharing that.

  10. Useful useful topic, still, easier said than done, I, for instance, tend to over-verbalize the tasks in my head, repeatedly until I finish all of them, I get things done but I get tired too and I am missing the pleasure of doing things leisurely, without haste. Now that I confessed, I expect to find a solution to this multitasking of tasks-to-do…:) How does the saying go, perfect is the enemy of good..? Thanks!

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