The lost art of paying attention
In this month’s newsletter, I’ll explore one of my favourite topics, focus (or the loss of it) and how to sharpen it.
Last month I asked a couple of hundred students questions about their ability to focus – the results are below. When I ask teams these questions, the results tend to be pretty consistent, particularly the response to the question, “Sometimes I read to the end of the page and have to read it again because I was thinking of other stuff and can’t remember anything.”
According to research by Dr Amishi Jha and others, at least 50% of the time, when we are focused on a task, our minds are either daydreaming or flitting from one thought to the next rather than being engaged in the task or listening to a colleague.
And our ability to focus is worsening.
- Average American student switches task every 65 seconds
- Most US office workers never get one hour of interrupted time at work during the day
- And CEOs get an average of just 28 minutes a day of uninterrupted time
- We touch our phones 2,617 every 24 hours
Since the advent of the iPhone in the mid-naughties, the pace of life has quickened, and people are deluged with competing demands on their attention, each serving a small dollop of dopamine which keeps our eyes on the screen (or screens).
Part of the challenge is our relationship with technology, but it’s not just that. For example, since the invention of the printing press and before, the amount of information people must process has been increasing. And the more information there is, the more complex and stressful it is for people to keep up with the relentless volume of data.
- In 1986 we absorbed the equivalent of 40 newspapers worth of data
- In 2007 we absorbed the equivalent of 174 newspapers worth of data
- People talk faster now and walk 10 % faster compared to 1950s
- 90% of all the information that has ever been created by mankind has been produced in the last two years (Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google)
- All the information created by mankind to 2003 (from cave paintings to the works of Shakespeare, the paintings Salvador Dali, the songs of the Beetles and so on) we now create as much content every two days.
The ability of people to focus on, sift, share and learn from information hasn’t changed that much in thousands of years – our short-term memory, reflex time and so on have a relatively fixed cognitive bandwidth. And this extra burden means we get stressed, constantly feel like we are missing out on something or drop the ball with family, friends and colleagues.
The myth of multi tasking
Many of my clients say that they are so much more efficient now than in the past and that having multiple things on the go at any one time gives them an adrenalin rush and makes them efficient. To a certain extent, I know what they mean. I’m an arch procrastinator, and when I’m under the pump can crank out a lot in a short period.
However, the reality is that multi-tasking is a myth. We are toggling our attention between tasks rather than spending an extended period on one topic.
In one Hewlett Packard study, IQ drops by 10% in office workers interrupted in a task. And in other studies, including one with Microsoft employees, the cost of skimming from one job to the next includes:
More errors in work and less effectiveness
- Poorer collaboration with colleagues – less active listening and lower levels of trust
- Less creativity – when we are required to shift from one task to the next, our depth of understanding is impaired. People find it hard to
- More reactivity and firefighting and less value-add strategy and self-awareness
- More stress – heightened levels of cortisol
- Adversely impacts psychosocial safety – when people are tuned out rather than listening, they miss important safety messages.
What can you do?
- Take regular energy breaks – keep a 10-minute gap (at least) between back-to-back meetings and use this gap to re-energise
- You can introduce your team to mindfulness and meditation – just a few moments of focusing on the breath can improve focus. For those who maintain a daily meditation practice, their ability to focus improves significantly.
- Discuss this topic in your team – how can you improve each other’s focus through less needless cc/ing, respecting when a colleague is focussed on a task, and being clear with meeting plans and outcomes?
- Explore stress management – exercise and a healthy, balanced diet help with our attention.
- Switch off notifications when you are with a colleague or working on a project and build in non-screen time for periods through the day – particularly in the last 45 minutes before bed.
Reach out to us
Over the years, we’ve run mindfulness at work programs for miners on mine sites, emergency department teams, students, carers and office workers.
Contact us today to find out more about our mindfulness at work programs.
“The faculty of bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character and will.”
“An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence”
William James 1890