It’s the perfect storm.
Our psychology is hard-wired to seek new stimuli. When seeing something novel, we receive a jolt of dopamine, which we like.
Neuroscientists call this bottom-up attention, and it’s the first system of attention in our brains—it’s part of how humanity has thrived. Bottom-up attention seeks novel stimuli with a particular focus on finding pleasure (i.e., nourishment and procreation) and avoiding pain (i.e., death).
Meanwhile, our technology has evolved to the point where new stimuli is omnipresent and more appealing than ever. We’ll never run out of things to look at on our phone, not to mention our other devices. After all, that’s a primary function of our brain.
In other words, our psychology craves distraction, and our technology enables it.
This combination has disastrous results—we’re chronically distracted. Since 2007 (the same year the iPhone was released), the decline in employee productivity has been staggering. One efficiency expert says we can lose more than six hours a day to interruptions. Another estimates that these interruptions waste 28 billion hours a year, costing the U.S. economy nearly $1 trillion. A different study found that multitasking costs the economy $450 billion annually.
Fortunately, we also have a top-down system of attention, devoted to planning. This top-down system allows us to make active decisions about where we focus. It enables us to choose to wash our car, clean our house, and file our taxes. Your future self loves it when this system of attention wins.
Activating this top-down system requires intentional planning. The details of the plan differ by people’s personalities, goals, and priorities, but whatever it is, it must be meticulous. No one can thrive in this perfect storm without defining purposeful strategies to keep their attention where they want it.
1. Communication: How and when do you allow yourself to be reached?
Are you available to everyone at all times? Do you have a system for putting yourself in an unreachable “vault” to accomplish work that requires active focus? Do you pressure yourself to respond to everyone immediately? Is e-mail the one place for everything? Would shorter meetings be effective? Can conflict ever be handled digitally?
2. Technology: Does your technology promote focus instead of interruption?
Are you providing helpful technology or needless distractions for your team? Can they access key information, or does it get lost in the shuffle? Would productivity software be helpful, or would its learning curve sap the resources it’s meant to preserve?
3. Office Design: Does every sphere of attention have its own space?
How can you make your workplace more conducive to focused work? How can you support telecommutors to control their attention? To what extent does your team feel compelled to respond to external demands on their attention? How can you empower employees to find the space to use their focus purposefully?
4. Planning: What are your priorities, and how can you empower others to pursue them?
Do your people know why they’re on your team, and can they articulate it? What are your company’s priorities, in order? Can even your most junior team members identify those priorities? How can you emphasize the difference between delegation and empowerment?
5. People Development: What are your expectations of your team, and how do you communicate those expectations?
How can you separate professional advancement from social connectivity? How can you make work-life balance a priority for your team and yourself? Do spouses expect to reach you and your team at work? Do bosses in your organization expect to reach your team at home? How do you tailor training to dwindling attention spans?
6. Leadership: How are you trying to change yourself?
How can you be more intentional in developing new leaders? How do you motivate when studies show 87% of employees aren’t engaged? If a paycheck can’t make them care, how can you appeal to their emotions in other ways? And what about yourself needs to change before you can lead the needed change in your organization?
Evaluating these 6 areas puts your company in a better position than most for thriving in the perfect storm of technology and distraction-loving human psychology.
Fortunately, this storm is like any other—we can weather it. We just have to prepare.
This article was adapted from Can I Have Your Attention?: Inspiring Better Work Habits, Focusing Your Team, and Getting Stuff Done in the Constantly Connected Workplace by Curt Steinhorst and Jonathan McKee with permission of the publisher, Wiley. Copyright (c) 2018 by Wiley. All rights reserved. Get the book on Amazon and wherever books are sold.
Curt Steinhorst is on a mission to rescue us from our distracted selves. Having spent years studying the impact of tech on human behavior, Curt founded Focuswise, a consultancy that equips organizations to overcome the distinct challenges of the constantly-connected workplace. He is a leading voice on strategic communication, speaking more than 75 times a year to everyone from global leadership associations and nonprofits to Fortune 100 companies. Curt is the author of the book Can I Have Your Attention? Inspiring Better Work Habits, Focusing Your Team, and Getting Stuff Done in the Constantly Connected Workplace (John Wiley & Sons, October 2017).