Here's a unique challenge for you: This post is a 5-minute read. Can you read this entire piece through once without getting distracted, checking your email, looking at your texts, or snooping at your social media?
Here's why I care so much that you CAN do that:
According to a 2005 study by the productivity research firm Basex, interruptions, distractions, and recovery time consume 28 percent of the average knowledge worker's day. That translates into 28 billion man-hours per year lost to US companies.[i] Gloria Mark, a professor who studies digital distraction at the University of California at Irvine, has found that, between digital and human factors, there's typically only three minutes of consistent focus before an employee gets interrupted or self-interrupts. (Three minutes! I can barely brush my teeth in three minutes.) Mark also calculates that it may take 23 minutes before a worker gets back to whatever task he was completing before the interruption occurred. [ii] And in a 2011 survey of U.S. employees by harmon.ie, a social email software provider, almost half of the employees in the study said they usually worked just fifteen minutes or less without getting interrupted or distracted. [iii]
It is clear, then, that distractions cost significant amounts of time. But they also cost companies substantial money. The Basex study found that the cost of managing distractions for U.S. businesses is $588 billion, while the harmon.ie study found that a typical company with more than 1,000 employees can waste more than $10 million per year as a result of digital distractions.
Distractions and interruptions are significantly undermining our ability to focus, engage and be productive. Yet we have come to accept workdays filled with distractions and interruptions as normal; many of us complete our work in the "margins" of our days, early in the morning and late at night, due to the pressing demands on our time and attention. Many organizations foster a culture in which being distracted is viewed as necessary or beneficial: they encourage managers to declare "My door is always open," they expect employees to respond to emails and text messages within minutes or even seconds, and they lionize workers who somehow manage to do two or three or five things at once, as if "multitasking" is the key to success. In this kind of corporate climate, culturally-driven busyness becomes inevitable and is rarely questioned, despite the high toll it takes on our productivity and effectiveness.
It is time for us to push back against the plague of distractions and interruptions. But before we can do this, we need to understand the finite and fleeting nature of our attention and how this affects our productivity.
Human brains come equipped with two kinds of attention: involuntary and voluntary. Involuntary attention is designed to be on the watch for threats to survival and is triggered by outside stimuli - what grabs you. Today, we do not face the same kinds of survival threats our ancestors faced--rampaging predators, attacks by rival tribes; our biggest threat is an irate client, a demanding boss, or a surly coworker, hardly the same as a charging tiger. However, our brains have not evolved to distinguish between the ping of a new text message and a roar of a wild animal; though at times you might feel as if your email was a predatory, animal, in fact it is not. So throughout the average workday our involuntary attention works on overdrive, automatically rattled by the workday cacophony of rings, pings, and buzzes.
As our involuntary attention works on overdrive, we are also battling a neurochemical, dopamine, which unconsciously causes us to want, seek out, and be curious about ideas, thus fueling our desire for information. So if you have ever felt as if you were addicted to email, Twitter, or texting, you were right--and dopamine is the physiological cause.[iv]
The addictive power of dopamine is surprisingly strong. As I am typing this, I feel myself wanting to know more about dopamine, a desire I can easily satisfy with a Google search. At the same time, I am wondering whether I've received any emails in the last twenty minutes, I'm curious about what the weather will be like for the rest of the week, and I want to see who can meet me for lunch this afternoon. Click, swipe, ping--I am now in a dopamine-induced loop, circling through the Internet rather than accomplishing the task I set out to perform. The dopamine got me seeking, I got chemically rewarded for seeking, and now I want to seek some more. And over time, it becomes harder and harder to stop - checking email, my iPhone, my text messages, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
Voluntary attention is the ability to concentrate on a chosen task. It is "voluntary" because you have control over it, whether or not you fully recognize and exercise that control. In her book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, Winifred Gallagherargues that humans are the sum of what they pay attention to. In effect, what we focus on determines our experience, knowledge, amusement, and fulfillment.[v] So our attention is an enormously powerfully force, one that can profoundly shape our lives and our very beings. Yet instead of cultivating this resource with the care it deserves, we generally tend to squander it on "whatever captures our awareness."
Unfortunately, managing our attention does not come easy for most people. In part, this is because we're simply unaccustomed to thinking about the process in any explicit fashion. But there are also a number of psychological and environmental forces that actively work to sabotage our efforts to focus. These include:
Intense emotion. According to Srini Pillay, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, the brain's wiring lends itself to being distracted. The part of the brain devoted to attention is connected to the brain's emotional center. So any strong emotion - frustration with a colleague, problems with your teenager - can disrupt your attention.[vi] As you have probably experienced, even working on a challenging project creates anxiety or stress, another strong emotion, which can make you tend to self-interrupt as a way of escaping that intense experience.
Physical discomfort. You are also more vulnerable to distractions when you are uncomfortable, hungry, or tired, asserts Robert Epstein, a research psychologist and founder of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies.[vii]
Psychological insecurity. Author Tony Schwarz notes that our responsiveness to distractions is powerfully influenced by our desire for connection. Thus, the safer and more secure we feel, the more focused attention we can allocate to our long-term goals.[viii]
In order to manage our attention, we must work with nature and with the innate tendencies of our brain to respond to forces like emotion, discomfort, and insecurity, rather than trying to struggle against these psychological and physical drives. So what can you do to harness the finite nature of your attention?
Pay attention...to your attention. This sounds obvious, I know, but think about it - do you notice that there are times of day or places in your home or office where you get easily distracted? For example, if you work in a co-working office, and you're in a room with a lot of foot traffic, does that distract you from what you're doing in that moment? Take a day to be overly mindful of your personal attention practices.
Get real about your digital distractions. As we add more and more social media platforms to our smartphone, we're also adding more and more opportunities to an alert, a ping, or a number-in-a-bubble to pull us away from our work in order to 'check it'. Think about what platforms you use on a daily basis, and which ones specifically are your Achilles' heel for distraction. Set specific times of day when you check those platforms; this is also a practice in personal accountability; granted, no one will know how often you're checking those platforms, but someone might see the distractions in the quality of your work.
Think about how you manage your energy. When we're tired, thirsty, and/or hungry, maintaining powerful, laser-focus attention will be next to impossible because our bodies and minds are craving something else.
Now, think about how all three of these things works together - how often do you find yourself in that 3:18 pm energy slump where you're tired or hungry or thirsty, and you check your digital distractions? Before you know it, its 3:55 pm, and you've got a call at 4:00 pm, and now your attention has been hijacked for what will probably be the rest of your workday. The truth of the matter, too, is that as much as we try to cover it up or compensate, other people DO notice when you're distracted; they might not say something to you, but they'll notice it, feel it, experience it. What's at stake for you and your career when that happens?
Just as with productivity, attention is personal. Your co-worker might have a longer attention span than you; your team member might be easily distracted. Your goal is to find out what works best for your productivity style and your attention style. You'll produce your best work when those two styles work together.
So, how'd you do on your attention-span challenge?
[i]"The Cost of Not Paying Attention: How Interruptions Impact Worker Productivity," by Jonathan B. Spira and Joshua B. Feintuch. Basex, Inc., September 2005.
[ii] "Distractions at Work: Employees Increasingly Losing Focus; Some Companies Combating the Problem." Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/13/work-distractions-employees-lose-focus-companies-problem_n_2294054.html, accessed July 8, 2013.
[iii] "Do Collaboration and Social Tools Increase or Drain User Productivity?" harmon.ie, http://harmon.ie/Downloads/DistractionSurveyResults, accessed July 8, 2013.
[iv] Brain Wise, by Susan Weinschenk.
[v] Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, by Winifred Gallagher (New York: Penguin Group, 2009).
[vi] "Distracted? It's Time to Hit the Reset Button," http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/20/jobs/to-avoid-distractions-at-work-hit-the-reset-button.html?_r=0, New York Times, accessed July 8, 2013.
[viii] The Way We're Working Isn't Working: The Four Forgotten Needs that Energize Great Performance, by Tony Schwartz (New York: Free Press, 2010), pg. 191.