Last year I attended a Bon Jovi concert. The band was amazing, and they showed that some folks can age well and keep rocking. Most of the crowd had not aged as well as the band had, but most of us were having a great time remembering back to the first time they heard Livin’ on a Prayer (go ahead and click the link… the walk down memory lane is worth it; we’ll wait here). It had been a while since I had been to a concert, and I was more than a little surprised by how many people who paid good money to see the show spent more time on their mobile devices than actually watching the show.
I don’t begrudge the world the amazing tool these devices are, but I can’t help but wonder when we decided that whatever is on there is more important than what is right in front of us. When did we as a species decided that we are good enough at life to dedicate only a fraction of our attention to what we are doing?
The fact is that most of us, most of the time, lack the focus we need to be really effective at what we are doing.
And I don’t just mean the obvious things like driving and walking. I mean we are so distracted that we are less and less effective at most things we do, including watching concerts.
And our distraction isn’t limited to electronic devices. Ever find yourself thinking about an upcoming meeting during a meeting you are already in? Ever answer a routine text or email during a critical conversation with a subordinate who really needs your guidance? Ever miss a crucial part of your boss’ speech because you let your mind wander to that new wine bar you just discovered and how you could be meeting your friends there after work? We chalk it up to being busy, or credit our super-human multi-tasking ability to justify the fact that we really are losing our ability to focus.
By the way, cognitive scientists have long agreed that attentive multitasking is a myth.
Sure we think we are capable of doing multiple things simultaneously. It’s just fine that our days are so crammed full of stuff that we make major decisions with minimal thinking because we are scheduled in 15-minute increments. The fact is that we allow our attention to be divided among so many things that we are decreasingly capable of really focusing on our work and our lives. This makes us dramatically less effective at everything we do.
In the book Deep Work, author and Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport describes our normal work focus as shallow: we perform tasks that can be accomplished while distracted and which don’t demand a high degree of mental focus. Sadly, those are not the tasks that routinely bring a great deal of value to our work or our lives.
Most of us who live like this are confusing being busy with being productive.
Fortunately there are ways to combat our constant distraction
- Be present. Learn how to control where your mind wanders, and how to be more aware of what is happening around you.
- Focus on the important, not the urgent. Prioritize meaningful work and shut off distractions when concentrating on it (don’t even have the email app open, and turn off mobile devices). Limit your time answering email to less than an hour per day. Schedule time for deep work and protect it.
- Be discerning about what you allow into your mind: much of what we are presented has little value. Worse, the less valuable things are distracting us from the truly important ones.
- Work less, sleep more: sleep deprivation is a performance killer, and makes us easier to distract. Most work past fifty hours is dramatically less productive.
- Be decisive. Spend only as much time on decisions and tasks as they are worth: don’t hold a $20 thousand dollar meeting discussing a $5,000 question. Most decisions come down to drop it, do it, delegate it, or defer it. Decide and move on. Leaving issues undecided leaves them in your mind.
To a great extent, the “information overload” of today’s culture is a self-inflicted condition. We allow ourselves to be bombarded with distractions, and thus find it increasingly difficult to be fully present when we need to be. If we can clear our minds of the clutter of day-to-day distractions and be fully present in meaningful work and play, we will find more value in our work, our relationships, and our lives.