Culture & Attention Management

By Bill Sanders

Time to read: 6 minutes

Walking down the hallway of a hotel earlier this month I passed three separate employees of the establishment; each was standing still, interacting with their smartphone. In the airport last week, I noticed something similar; no fewer than four employees checking their smartphones while on duty, one while actively involved serving a customer.

I see this regularly in everything from restaurants to retail. While I’m sure that some of those interactions may have fallen into the category of legitimate, work-related activities, I’d bet good money that most of them were not. eMarketer reports that on average, American adults check their smartphones 47 times per day. And it’s even worse for children under 18; 86 times per day. That’s approximately once every 20 waking minutes and once every 11 minutes respectively.

Add to that the fact that we are bombarded with an average of 5000 marketing messages per day*, and it’s no wonder almost 70% of us are disengaged in our work. Our work cultures aren't just allowing it; they are supporting it as the default.

Attentive, focused, adaptive cultures do not appear by default, they exist by design. And they don't appear suddenly overnight as the result of new rules and policies; they are grown over time by deliberate behaviors based on well thought out principles.

Brands everywhere are clamoring for our attention. In fact, it's more than mere brands; it's every idea, cause, and activity under the sun. And what's more, it's easier and cheaper than ever to attract our attention and distract us from what's truly important in our lives, careers, and businesses.

Fundamentally this is less about attention than it is about purpose, deliberateness, connection, and self-control. Those words aren't trendy right now, but they represent the fundamental core of engagement. And they begin with us as individuals. Regardless if our position is that of an employee, manager, or owner, we can make a difference; at a minimum in our own lives.

Begin with Purpose

Last week as a client was going over financials with me on his laptop, I lost count of how many distractions interrupted us on his screen. Incoming email notifications, instant messages, text messages, slack interactions, dings, bells, and pop-ups consistently sought to capture our attention for the entire meeting. And with the single exception of the ten-minute warning for the following meeting, everyone other one of those alerts represented someone’s else’s priorities for my client’s time and attention.

How does your world compare? How much of what you allow through your electronic filters, via the smartphone or the computer, is supportive of your purpose and your priorities?

I personally dislike anything being around my wrists, which is why the second or third day after I started carrying a cell phone in the ‘90’s, my watch went directly into a drawer and didn’t come back out until a year or two ago. It came out again when I caught myself not just checking the time on my phone, but unlocking it and browsing through apps out of habit. I now wear a watch again while working.

I deliberately decided to change a habit that had developed by default, or rather, by the design of multiple gamified apps on my phone. That habit was stealing time and attention away from my purpose and responsibilities.

Other Examples

In addition to wearing a watch again, here are some other changes I’ve made to help me stay engaged and focused:

  • I begin the day by establishing my priorities for the day and getting it blocked on my calendar.
  • I do not start the day with email – again it represents everyone else's priorities for me, not my own, so I filter email requests from others only after I've set my priorites for the day.
  • I check email every 90 to 120 minutes and then close the program.
  • I've limited my phone to generate three kinds of alerts: (1) Meeting Reminders – set to vibrate and show on the locked screen; (2) Phone calls – set to vibrate and show on the locked screen; (3) Txt messages – set to show on the locked screen only
  • My computers are set to pop up only Meeting Reminders, everything else including apps are limited to displaying the little red number on the badge app icon.
  • I use pop-up blockers, ad blockers, and auto-play disablers in all my browsers.
  • My computer’s sound is turned off by default.
  • I only buy pants now that will allow me to sit comfortably with my phone still in my pocket.
  • I even deleted Facebook from my phone for over a year until I was sure I had broken the habit of checking it multiple times a day. Now it's back, and I open it on my phone less than once or twice a week.

These are just a few examples of decisions I’ve made and new habits I’ve created, not in the name of increasing productivity, but in the name of guarding my attention and supporting my purpose and objectives.

Normative Pressure

Have you ever been at a restaurant with a table of three or four other people when someone checks their cellphone to answer a text message? Frequently I see everyone immediately pick their phone up as well. It’s almost as contagious as yawning in my experience. To strengthen my resolve in such situations, I remember to leave my phone in my pocket or briefcase. As I sit there watching them quietly, it usually only takes a few seconds for normative pressure to exert itself and someone will notice that I’m waiting. The fewer people at the table, the quicker the response.

A client of mine who is the owner of an advertising agency began leaving his smartphone in his office during meetings. He didn’t change the rules or insist on everyone else following suit, but he did explain why he was doing it; to better control disruptions and maintain focus. After a few weeks, he began to see fewer phones on the table at meetings. His staff still had their phones at hand, but they were out of sight and less disruptive all around.

I believe it's safe to say that we all would like to work in an environment where we can thrive, where we feel connected to the purpose of the organization or team, and where we can engage and enjoy our work. Think for a moment about the traits and behaviors you'd most like to see in your employees, co-workers, and managers that would help support that environment. Pick one or two of those and begin working on being an example in that area until it's a habit and then pick one or two more. Others will follow and start contributing to the new culture, or your increased productivity will generate new opportunities to work in cultures that recognize and appreciate your self-discipline. If you want to build a culture of self-management, managing your distractions and attention is a highly leveraged place to begin.

*Rosenblum, Jeff, and Jordan Berg. “Friction: Passion Brands in the Age of Disruption.”Friction: Passion Brands in the Age of Disruption, PowerHouse Books, 2017, p. 109.

About the author: Bill Sanders helps leaders and organizations adapt, grow and thrive in rapidly changing environments. He is Principal and Sr. Consultant with Roebling Strauss, an operational strategy consultancy that specializes in delivering dramatic improvements in organizational effectiveness, Lead Link of the Finance Circle for Great Work Cultures, a community dedicated to creating a new norm for work cultures that optimize worker effectiveness and human happiness, and an Advisor to the C-Suite Network, the world’s most trusted network of C-Suite leaders. Connect with Bill on Twitter at @technacea.

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