Death of Attention – No time to think.

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Look around you and everywhere you go; restaurants, the subway or even a walk in the park, people are staring intently at the small screen in their hands. Getting anyone’s full attention these days is very difficult. How long does it take during a meeting with a client, a conversation with a friend or a romantic dinner out to be interrupted by a short check of their smartphone?

Jane Piper, Organisational Psychologist, Pipsy
Jane will be speaking at the IRM UK
Business Analysis Conference Europe 23-25 September 2019, London. She will be speaking on the subject, ‘Finding Focus in a Crazy Busy World‘.

We check our phone every 12 minutes[i]. And that’s not to mention when people are at their desks, so add in emails, on-screen instant messages and notifications of in-house platforms. In a world of information overload, it is all vying for our attention, distracting us from doing any real thinking.

Deep work adds value

Constant distractions and multi-tasking result in shallow work, the opposite of deep work. Deep work is the term Prof Cal Newport[ii], uses to describe performing work in state of concentration that pushes your thinking to the limit. You know you’ve done deep work because you feel some mental strain because it is demanding. It is also very satisfying when you’ve finished, knowing that you’ve put in a lot of effort to produce something of value.

Deep work is necessary in professions where problem solving, complex analysis and emotional intelligence are required. To perform well cognitively requires your full concentration and attention. Constant interruptions mean that ideas and thoughts flit in an out of the brain. Without giving them your attention, ideas don’t form fully nor do you learn. It is not thinking, it’s just being a human processor.

Deep work is valuable and will become even more valuable. Shallow work, like answering emails, finding information in documents and basic analysis will be eventually, or already is, automated. The real value we humans offer is the ability to solve complex problems by applying creative ideas and using our emotional intelligence to influence others.

With our attraction to our digital devices, our ability to pay attention is disappearing. The brain is like a physical muscle, performance improves with training and atrophies without. If you constantly are multi-tasking and instantly responding to every message, then your attention span will get shorter. The good news is that it is completely reversible with practice.

Social media is thinking junk food

Think of social media as junk food for your brain. It’s easy to consume but usually completely empty of any real calories or value. The information is chosen for you by an algorithm depending on what you viewed previously. It is delivered in small bites of mostly unresearched, unverified opinion –meaning you engage in less critical thinking and avoid information that may challenge your opinion. Often you are consuming content because it is there, not because you are really hungry.

And it’s been designed to be addictive. Programmers and designers at Facebook, Instagram and other social media channels use exactly the same principles as casinos use to keep people gambling. It’s a gamble if your post will be liked or shared enhancing your social status and recognition amongst your tribe. Bright colours, pre-playing videos and auto-feeds are like the buzz and noise of a casino floor.

The first step to retrain your attention span is to limit your consumption of social media. You don’t need to turn it off completely, just decide how and when you will use it. Just like only having junk food once a week, you can decide to use Linkedin for only 30 minutes a day to find and keep up to date with your professional network.

Open all hours

Our brains don’t work like on-line shopping – it is not better to be available 24/7. With a smartphone you can be connected all of the time, but that isn’t going to help you to be more productive. Our brains work better with a period of intense concentration followed by a break. If we are on all of the time, we don’t give ourselves a chance to refresh and unwind. Even if it is just a short check of the email in the evening, the residue of the thoughts remains in your mind for much longer than the real time spent. This makes it harder to switch off, relax and refresh.

We’ve all experienced the phenomena of the best ideas coming to you in shower or at the gym. When you are not thinking about it, the solution to a problem or a thought will pop into your head. But if you are constantly online then there is no time for your subconscious to process ideas in the background and come up with those thoughts.

Step two seems a little counterintuitive as it is the opposite of what we are usually told – be more productive by working harder. In fact it is better to work less and to have regular time away from work and your screens to be more productive.

Control some time chunks

The final step is to take control of some chunks of time so that you can do some deep work. Set aside one to two hours in your diary for a problem or project that requires your attention. Turn off all notifications (Do Not Disturb or Airplane mode is great for this). Set a timer to 25 minutes and work completely uninterrupted for this time on your problem. After this take a short 3-5 minute break, and repeat. You can slowly start increasing the time from 25 minutes up to about 45 minutes, the time of most people’s attention span.

To be more productive in professions requiring critical thinking, problem solving and emotional intelligence is not about working longer or harder. It is about applying our attention and knowledge to the problems and issues that really add value. We can only do this when our brain is focused, undistracted and well refreshed. So time to switch off to switch on improved productivity.

After 20 years in corporate HR roles, including with Professional Services firms, she’s now the author of the book Focus in the Age of Distraction. With a background in Organisational Psychology Jane provokes the audience to question their assumptions. My aim is to get them to leave and make small changes in habits that will have a lasting impact to improve their happiness and productivity. Twitter: @janepiperpipsy

Copyright Jane Piper, Organisational Psychologist, Pipsy

[i] Professor at Georgetown University
[ii] A decade of digital dependency Ofcom report. Accessed from

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