We decided to write this week’s article on increased disconnectedness and inability to find focus. Our first course of action was to open a new Google Doc and pull together a draft outline. We copy/pasted some reference links and then proactively made an entirely non-urgent phone call to our mom to confirm some travel plans. Then, we looked at some online news because, clearly, it was imperative to know how Jason Kelce’s wife felt about his shirtless antics at the Chiefs/Bills game. Then we resumed putting together a loose structure for our Weekly Thoughts article. Then we reviewed a draft LOI. Then we responded to a text from the Girl Scout Troop moms about the impending Cookie Season. Then we checked our email and responded to some blocking and tackling logistical items. Then we got a drink of water. Then we put some more links into the Weekly Thoughts Google Doc. Then we checked our email again, which was completely unnecessary since we’d checked it 10 minutes earlier. Then we got a snack and looked at Zillow despite already owning a house and having no intention of purchasing another. Then we added some potential quotes into our Weekly Thoughts Google Doc. Then we got a Slack message about the updated LOI so we clearly checked in on that. Then finally we realized we were running out of time before the kids got home and implored ourselves to FOCUS! We closed all the other tabs, turned our phone on do not disturb mode, and got this article written.
As much as we’d like to attribute the above actions to our “creative process” the reality is that some days we have no issues focusing. Other days, well, despite the fact that we were WRITING AN ARTICLE ABOUT BEING DISTRACTED our monkey mind still takes over and we are all over the place. In the midst of our distraction, we recalled an insightful 2008 article from The Atlantic titled “Is Google Making us Stupid?”. From the article:
“Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”
This article resonated with us back in 2008. Although the costs of distraction have been well documented, the phenomenon of a broad inability to concentrate has gotten worse over the past 16(!) years. Just how bad? Well, according to a recent Hidden Brain podcast with psychologist Gloria Mark, our collective ability to focus has diminished significantly over the past two decades. From the podcast, in which Mark describes the findings of her research on attention span as it relates to computer usage:
“One of the things we’ve observed – and I’ve been doing this for about twenty years – is that the amount of attention duration on any one screen has decreased over time. So, when we first started studying back in 2004, we found that people’s average attention on any given screen was about 2.5 minutes. And then in 2012, this went down to about 75 seconds, on average. And then from about 2016 to about 2020, this was right before the pandemic started, we found the average attention to be about 47 seconds.
2.5 minutes of attention doesn’t sound like a great starting point but the fact that we’ve seen a 68%(!) decrease in attention span since 2004 is just depressing. So, what do we do now?
While Mark acknowledges this is an uphill battle, she has some useful suggestions such as batching emails, putting phones on do not disturb when working, and limiting pop-up messaging notifications. Of course, we did all of that this week but were still all over the place. In our experience, to battle distraction, one has to have the discipline to create and maintain barriers that allow the brain to train its focus muscle. Clearly, this is still a work in progress for us.
From a management perspective, since there are so many contributors to the onslaught of reduced attention (social media, messaging apps, emails, TV shows, movies, etc.), it’s important we accept that a high level of distraction is just a reality in our workforce. As a result, we need to go into most settings assuming we have at best 45 seconds of focus before attention wanes. Gone are the days when people will actually read a memo or long-form email so we must adjust accordingly. Examples include sending out a memo alongside a key points summary, reiterated with a short-term Slack message and a reminder at an in-person meeting. We also ask people to leave their phones out of certain meetings and to close unrelated computer tabs when on important video meetings. Yes, this is all potentially futile, but it’s the best we can do….. although now we have to go check our email since we got a slack message pop up about a text chain we haven’t responded to yet…
Have a great (focused) week,
Your Chenmark Team