Attention and Focus are the Raw Materials of Human Creativity and Flourishing
It’s 9 a.m.: You walk into the office, sit down, fire up your computer and attempt to start your workday. Ping! Everyone is talking about Trump’s latest tweet. Ping! There it goes again - a family member just texted you.
You pick up your phone to look at the news notification and answer your text, only to check a Facebook post and then watch a Youtube video. Suddenly, before you know it, an hour has passed, and you haven’t accomplished a single work-related task.
A lack of focus comes at a cost
The challenge at work, of course, has always been to dodge things that distract us. But today’s distractions feel different.
The amount of information available, the speed at which it can be disseminated and the ubiquity of access to new content on our devices has made for a trifecta of distraction.
What’s the cost of all this? In 1971, the psychologist Herbert A. Simon emphasized that a wealth of information means a dearth of something else: attention.
That was true decades ago, but it’s truer than ever today. Attention, it appears, seems to be the ultimate scarce resource in today’s economy. And if we don’t address it now, it’s only going to get worse.
The most important skill of the 21st century
The workplace is rapidly changing, and in the near future, there will be two kinds of people in the world: those who let their attention and lives be controlled and coerced by others and those who proudly call themselves “indistractable.”
Researchers have been telling us that attention and focus are the raw materials of human creativity and flourishing. And in the age of increased automation, the most sought-after jobs are those that require creative problem-solving, novel solutions and the kind of human ingenuity that comes from focusing deeply on the task at hand.
That said, not being distractable is the single most important skill for the 21st century. Many experts, including Adam Grant, who said that “success and happiness belong to people who can control their attention,” have addressed the importance of focus.
Here are some of the most common workplace distractions and how to hack them so you can become one step closer to mastering the skill of being indistractable:
Email is the curse of the modern worker. A study published in the International Journal of Information Management found office workers take an average of 64 seconds after checking email to reorient themselves to get back to work.
To reduce the total amount of time spent keeping your inbox in check, you must focus on two things:
- Reducing the total number of messages received: To receive fewer emails, you must send fewer emails. It sounds obvious, but most emails we send and receive aren’t very urgent, yet our brain’s weakness for variable rewards makes us treat every message, regardless of form, as if it’s time-sensitive. That tendency conditions us to check our inbox constantly, reply and bark out requests instantaneously. All of that is a huge mistake.
- Reducing the time spent emailing: The most important aspect of an email is how urgently it needs a reply. Because we forget when the sender needs a reply, we waste time rereading the message. The solution? Only touch each email twice. When you first open an email, answer this question before closing it: When does this require a response? Then, tag it as either “Today” or “This Week.” Doing so attaches the most important information to each new message, preparing it for the second (and last) time you open it. (Of course, for super-urgent, email-me-right-now type of messages, go ahead and respond.)
He recommends enforcing three rules when it comes to group chats:
- Use it like a sauna: Get in, get out.
- Schedule it: Set a time for group chat on your calendar.
- Be picky: The smaller the group, the better. The key is to make sure everyone present is able to add and extract value from being part of the conversation.
- Use it selectively: Group chats are good for some topics and groups, but not for others - so be mindful about how you use it.
The primary objective of most meetings should be to gain consensus around a decision, not to create an echo chamber for the meeting organizer’s own thoughts.
One of the easiest ways to prevent superfluous meetings is to require two things of anyone who calls one:
- Circulate an agenda of what problem(s) will be discussed. No agenda, no meeting.
- Give their best shot at a solution in the form of a brief, written digest. It need not be more than a page or two discussing the problem, their reasoning and their recommendation.
Being present is also important. Once the meeting is held, everyone’s laptops and devices should be shut off or left at their desks so that they can be there in both body and mind.
Our smartphones have become indispensable. This miracle device, however, is also a major source of potential distraction. The good news is, being dependent isn’t the same as being addicted.
The plan below can save you countless hours of mindless phone time. Plus, implementing it takes less than an hour from start to finish, leaving no excuse for calling your phone “distracting” ever again.
- Get rid of apps you rarely or no longer use. It helps to ask yourself which apps were serving you in a positive way, and which ones were not. Based on my answers, I uninstalled the ones that didn’t align with my values and kept the ones for learning and staying healthy. I also removed news apps with blaring alerts and stress-inducing headlines.
- Get rid of apps you love. This may mean getting rid of apps like YouTube, Facebook or Twitter. If abandoning these services isn’t entirely an option for you, replace when and where you use these potentially distracting services on your phone. One solution is to only put them on your desktop computer.
- Rearrange your apps. Tony Stubblebine, editor-in-chief of the popular Medium publication Better Humans, recommends sorting your apps into three categories: “Primary Tools” (apps that help you accomplish defined tasks you frequently rely on: getting a ride, finding a location, adding an appointment), “Aspirations” (apps that encourage you to do things you want to spend on: meditation, yoga, exercise, reading books, listening to podcasts) and “Slot Machines” (apps you open and get lost in: email, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram).
- Change your app notification settings so you receive fewer, only essential, notifications. Adjusting my notification settings took me less than 30 minutes, but it was the most life-changing. In my experience, it’s only worth adjusting two kinds of notification permissions: sound and sight. Ask yourself which apps should be able to interrupt you when you’re with your family or in the middle of a meeting.
While open-office floor plans offices were designed to foster idea-sharing and collaboration, they often lead to more distraction. Interruptions tend to decrease overall employee satisfaction and increase mistakes.
A multi-hospital study coordinated by the University of California, San Francisco, for example, found an 88% drop in the number of errors nurses made when they wore bright orange vests that told colleagues to not interrupt them.
Like the nurses in the study, you can reduce the number of interruptions while working by placing a “Do Not Interrupt” sign somewhere visible on your desk. It can also read something like, “I need to focus right now, but please come back later.”
This is a simple way to let coworkers know that you don’t want to be interrupted. It’s great because it sends an unambiguous message in a way that wearing headphones can’t.
Nir Eyal is a graduate and instructor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. He writes, consults and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. Nir’s writing has been featured in Harvard Business Review, Time and Psychology Today. His latest book, “Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life” (published by BenBella Books) is out now.