Where our attention is right now isn’t great. Let’s step back from looking at what’s wrong with how we spend our precious attention and take a look at what an attention utopia might be.
What makes us miserable about our current state of constant interruptions is that it destroys our control. Our attention is not under our command; instead, it ends up being at the mercy of notification on top of notification, multiple applications chiming out for attention. Wrangling them under your control seems to be the root of the solution.
Our always-on-culture means that work contacts don’t always stay within the bounds of the workplace. Especially in remote and work-from-home situations, it becomes all too easy to answer emails and Slack messages after hours. Legislation is even popping up in Spain, France, and the Phillipines to guarantee the right to disconnect from contact outside of the eight-hour day. Freeing up your free time seems to be the bare minimum.
But what about within the workday? A working environment ideal for the optimum use of attention might be as simple as allowing each employee to guide their attention to where they feel the need to focus it. Notifications become minimal, reduced to only those most important. Your current project suffers no context switching or dual-task interference.
In Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about optimal experience as those where the individual has control over their moment to moment experience, bringing their consciousness into a state of order. But to get there, we need to wrest control away from those interruptions that create chaos in our conscious activities, those notifications that control our attention by flashing bright and noisy.
It’s possible that our attentional resources have been damaged from the quick fix, notification culture that we live in. Do we need to do something as drastic as taking a month away from all possible contacts to reset to normal? Or can we regain the ability to control our attention and therefore our conscious experience through a gradual reshaping of our environment?
There are ways to recover some measure of control over the attention of your day. You can use “timeboxing,” where you place a meeting on your calendar that is just for you, a time where everyone understands that you will not respond to notifications. You can be disciplined about statuses and notification settings, indicating when you are available and when you are not. But these techniques only try to manage notifications; what if you could reduce them?
This takes a rethinking about why we have notifications in the first place. Every email, every chat notification is an invitation to collaborate and share information. This is great! Collaboration is a force multiplier that increases employee effectiveness. But notifications are synchronous; they demand attention right now. Better collaboration lets all stakeholders come to the table when they are ready, either scheduled so they can plan around it or asynchronous so they can address it when they have the attention to give it.
The solution isn’t to try to tame the tools that broke our attention spans in the first place. The solution requires new tools that respect your attention while fitting into your existing workflow.