It won’t surprise you to know that we’re more distracted than ever.
And here’s the real punchline…
We’ve stacked the deck against ourselves.
At first, our brains evolved to seek new stimuli. This helped us stay alive as we found fruit, water, attractive mates, and better trees to live under. Each discovery jolting our brain with dopamine, so we kept seeking out more, thus we survived. Neuroscientists call this bottom-up attention and it’s the first system of attention in our brains.
But we’re not just discovering fruit anymore, are we? Our technology has also evolved, to the point where new stimuli surround us every second. Our phone will never run out of shiny things to look at – not to mention our other devices. And looking at shiny things is one of the primary functions of our brain.
Our brains desire distraction and our technology provides it.The Great War between humans and robots isn’t coming, it’s here now, and we’re losing. Click To Tweet
A stacked deck in the workplace
This is a bad situation when you’re trying to get something accomplished. Especially when you need an entire team of other people to help you accomplish it, and each of those people is just as distracted as you are. After all, Facebook’s busiest hours are 1-3pm, Monday-Friday.
Let’s put some numbers on it: Since 2007 (the year Apple released the iPhone), interruptions have increased to make us waste up to six hours a day. One estimate calculates these interruptions as costing 28 billion hours (with a ‘b’!), resulting in nearly $1 trillion in lost productivity. Even without distractions, a different study found that the mental sluggishness due to multitasking costs the economy $450 billion annually. All of that, just in the US.
The Great War between humans and robots isn’t coming, it’s here now, and we’re losing.
But we can still win.
We have two interdependent weapons.
Our first weapon is what neuroscientists call our top-down system of attention, devoted to planning. This system is what allowed us, after discovering new fruit, to restrain ourselves from eating all of it – and instead save some for planting. It’s a system that sacrifices current stimuli for future benefit.
Which is great, but how many times have you clenched your fist and declared, “Starting now I will lose weight and gain muscle!”, only to find yourself eating red velvet cake before dinner that night? If you’re anything like me, it’s pretty often.
The top-down system isn’t enough by itself, it also needs: community. Doing things together invests everyone in the outcome. If you agree to meet your friend at the gym every day at 7am – and you put some kind of penalty in place for not going, like $5 – your will to succeed increases immensely.
Attention at the team level
Liberating your workplace from distractions and generating focus starts with a conversation with your team. Here are the six areas where I’ve found the most productive starting questions:
For example, how and when do you allow yourself to be reached? Is everyone available at all times? Is there a system for sequestering in an unreachable “vault” to accomplish work that requires active focus? Is e-mail the one place for everything?
Does your technology promote focus instead of interruption? Does it add value to make all information available to everyone, does that add clutter? Would productivity software be helpful, or would its learning curve sap the resources it’s meant to preserve?
Does every sphere of attention have its own space? How can you best signal to others not to interrupt with walk-bys and “quick questions” in times of active focus? To what extent does your team feel compelled to respond to external demands on their attention?
What are your plans, 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 overall priorities, in order? How can you emphasize the difference between delegation and empowerment?
What are your expectations of your team, and how do you communicate those expectations? 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 are you trying to change yourself? 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?
These are just starting points. It’s also helpful to define incentives, both positive and negative, and to establish a system of reminders so your collective decisions don’t fall by the wayside.
Our nature and technology don’t have to win. But we can only overcome them if we’re together.
About the author
Curt Steinhorst is the bestselling author of Can I Have Your Attention? Inspiring Better Work Habits, Focusing Your Team, and Getting Stuff Done in the Constantly Connected Workplace. He is on a mission to rescue us from our distracted selves. After 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.
Diagnosed with ADD as a child, Curt knows intimately the challenges companies face to keep the attention of today’s distracted workforce and customer. He has coached executives, TV personalities, and well-known professional athletes on how to effectively communicate and create focus when they speak to audiences, lead their employees, and engage their customers.
Curt’s unique insight and entertaining speaking style has captured the attention of audiences worldwide. He speaks more than seventy-five times a year to organizations that include everyone from global leadership associations and nonprofits to Fortune 100 companies.