Attention is your greatest resource (Part 1)

This is the first in a 3-part series. Check out Part 2 and Part 3 here.

Technology has become so ubiquitous and solved so many problems that no matter what industry you are in, you probably have a technology department. But networked technology has been around for over twenty years now, and it’s growing more mature every day. As any industry matures, it solves the easy problems and creates efficient, industry standard solutions that improve productivity for everyone.

That leaves the hard problems to solve, the breakthroughs and innovations that forge the next big opportunities. Growing in a maturing space means tackling the hard problems that no one has been able to solve, and solving hard problems needs focused, sustained attention from your technology workers. This attention—the time and freedom to focus—is your company’s most valuable resource.

Your technology experts and other knowledge workers need uninterrupted focus in order to enter flow states, the mindset in which they can bring their full suite of skills to bear on the issue. As described in the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, being in this zone allows one to become fully engaged and focused on the task at hand. It leads to better results and greater happiness. But it can only happen when you have the attention to focus fully on whatever it is that lies before you.

Maintaining attention in today’s work environment is hard, as communication is instant, thanks to email, chat programs, and social media, and responses may be expected instantly as well. On top of that, we regularly juggle multiple tasks simultaneously. Our attention is pulled in multiple directions, regardless of whether you live an inbox zero life or not.

Collaborative workplaces excel at solving hard problems. So tapping a colleague on the shoulder—whether in person or digitally through email or chat—is part of how companies thrive. Many companies have redesigned their offices in open layouts to facilitate spontaneous collaboration. When we need information or advice, we go for the shoulder tap. But every tap costs valuable attention.

The cost of lost attention is high. Researchers at UC Irvine observed office workers in their natural habitat and found that on average, they switched tasks or were interrupted about every three minutes. On top of that, it could take another 20 minutes to get back to where they were. In fact, these interruptions could cost individuals up to six hours every day.

In 1950, William James first suggested that attention is like a spotlight; you only see and absorb the things that you pay attention to. Sometimes, you can pay a lot of attention to a single spot, other times you expand or split your spotlight and pay a little attention to a larger number of things. But you generally have a limited amount of attention that you can focus your spotlight on at any given time. Those things outside of your spotlight might even be invisible to you, a phenomenon called inattentional blindness.

When we have multiple demands on our attention, we try multitasking—splitting our spotlight or shifting it rapidly to focus on the many tasks that come our way. The truth is, we’re bad at multitasking. There’s a mental cost to switching tasks, and that cost translates to up to 40% more time to complete the tasks. Small errors of inattention slip in—typos, missed cues, and quickly forgotten details. Even trying to do two things at once can mean you do both badly.

The prevalence of immediate and constant access to coworkers means that we’re always multitasking. Even in fully remote working environments, we’ve got a piece of our spotlight attuned to the places where our email and chat notifications display. We’re anticipating our phone’s vibrations, alerting us to a new message or email, so much so that 90% of us may suffer from phantom vibration syndrome.

All these interruptions can lead to greater stress and anxiety. Depending on the task, productivity may not suffer, but interruptions may cause us to work faster, which leads to greater time pressure, frustration, and stress. It takes more effort to complete the same amount of work with interruptions in the mix. In the longer-term, enduring regular interruptions—up to 85 per day—can cause decreased job satisfaction and burnout.

Stress and anxiety form a feedback loop. Both can cause attentional problems, like difficulty concentrating. Without the ability to pay attention to what you’re working on, you may forget steps or not remember solutions that you’ve found. Anxiety has been linked to memory lapses, and if you are constantly forgetting information you’ve received from those chat messages that interrupt people, you may end up interrupting your coworkers over and over.

It turns out that those coworkers you interrupt are usually the most senior employees at a company. They’ve been there the longest, they have the most historical knowledge about processes and tools. And they suffer the greatest number of interruptions from their coworkers.

Collaboration makes us great, but doing so through spontaneous interruptions can be counterproductive. For years, companies have built open offices to facilitate collaboration and group creativity. But in doing so, they forgot to take the precious resource of attention into account. Not only can open offices decrease focus and well-being by removing privacy, they may even decrease face-to-face collaboration.

Our ability to maintain attention isn’t great right now. In the next part in this series, let’s take a little look at what a utopia for attention could look like.

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