Our Attention Crisis: Productivity, Wellbeing and Mental Health

I woke up at 5:00 o’clock two days ago thinking about attention. In particular the challenges 21st century high-tech comms give us with staying focussed. And whether there is anything to give us cause for concern. My conclusion is that there are three areas where we need to take action: productivity, mental-health and wellbeing.

On a daily basis we face more interruptions than at any time in our species’ short history. I’m thinking about notifications, alerts, texts, emails, reminders… In short the way that most of us have our devices set to interrupt us.

Productivity – The Demon Ping

We all know about this. We’re concentrating on a piece of work when a notification pings onto our screen and hijacks our attention briefly. Or we may even switch to dealing with the new matter. Then when we return to job one it takes time to pick up the threads.

Neither of these responses is efficient, and although easily dealt with by adjusting our settings, many of us don’t do so. When you aggregate the impact of that across a team or business unit, it’s easy to see why research tells us there is a tangible reduction in productivity.

The challenge is, it goes against our brain’s hard wiring to ignore interruptions. The brain prioritises three things to focus our conscious mind on. One of them is a sudden change like an alert ping. Moreover our conscious has a tiny bandwidth – about 300bps – so is entirely consumed by any message we read, however brief. Focus is lost, attention is distracted, chains of thought mislaid, everything slowed down.

Our effectiveness in dealing with anything that requires both focus and concentration is compromised. For example understanding ideas and issues, designing solutions, scoping out processes, creativity, and learning. Our hunter-gatherer brain’s response to a simple message “new email” is to react as if it were a “possible predator proximity alert”.

Impact on our Mental Health and Wellbeing

However the impact on our mental-health is even more profound: diminishing wellbeing and undermining mindfulness.

So it’s particularly ironic that in the current pandemic of mental-health issues, this aspect of our attention crisis is getting, well, … less attention.

So I’m seized by the need to explain.

According to the most widely accepted definition in positive psychology wellbeing has five elements. All of these need to co-exist for our mental health & fulfilment to optimise. These are:

  1. Positive emotions (including, but not restricted to, happiness) and the absence of negative ones.
  2. Flow (that state where we are entirely absorbed in a task, and our time-sense accelerates or occasionally slows).
  3. Healthy relationships.
  4. A sense of purpose and meaning.
  5. The feelings of achievement and accomplishment.

Three of these elements are vulnerable to what I’m calling ‘our attention crisis’.

1. Positive Emotions & Happiness

Achieving our full happiness potential requires us to be happy in three timeframes: the past, present, and future. One of the essentials of happiness about the present is called savouring, the process of consciously noticing and enjoying the present moment. Interruptions are the enemy of savouring, and in fact can totally prevent it. Try turning all your notifications off and see what happens – you can still check regularly as you complete tasks. Even if you do it a few days per week it will help. You’ll feel happier, less stressed, more productive.

2. Flow

It’s probably obvious that interruptions knock us out of a flow state and can entirely disrupt it. So again, protect yourself from the demon ping. Try turning it off.

3. Relationships

I work with executives from 25 to 65 years old. One of the key things I explain is that our ability to have flourishing relationships with our colleagues depends on an emotional intelligence characteristic that positive psychologists call resonance. Resonance is the ability to trigger and maintain positive emotional responses (eg pleasant feelings) in other people. Resonance is also the avoidance of creating negative responses (eg boredom or disrespect).

I believe we are all aware that habits in relation to our devices vary widely between the generations. On the one hand we boomers are very easily offended by people looking at their mobiles or even texting while we’re talking to them. According to our social norms that’s the height of discourtesy. However doing so is perfectly acceptable and normal behaviour to most people in their early 20s. Indeed to ask them not to do so can be offensive to them.

Cue massive potential for empathy failures, negative emotion triggering, and healthy relationship / communication disruption.

On top of this, establishing a meaningful connection with another person during a meeting or a conversation requires us to focus on them. We humans are programmed to react to eye contact as a signal that we are being liked valued and listened to. Whatever age group one is part of, if the person you’re talking to is also having a simultaneous conversation via text, then this facet of normal human interaction cannot happen. So we can’t fully connect, empathise, or communicate. And our non-verbal messaging is even more unhelpful: “you’re not that important to me so you’re not getting my full attention, I don’t expect to be very interested in what you’re saying, and I don’t care how you’re feeling”.

It’s been show that when you actively and constructively respond to what another person is saying, that causes th the relationship between you to flourish. Accordingly my tip is, indeed I beseech you, PLEASE don’t multitask your friends, colleagues and family on your mobile. Protect your relationships. Enhance your wellbeing.

Mindfulness

Amongst other things mindfulness delivers calmness, reduces stress, improves concentration, boosts resilience, and strengthens the immune system.

Mindfulness is therefore incredibly helpful in these covid times. Both in strengthening our immune systems’ defences against infection, and in helping our resilience.

I’ve written elsewhere about the impact of COVID on our mental health. The recent perfect storm of stress-factors has overwhelmed people’s resilience, and has led to the current pandemic of anxiety, depression and stress-related illness.

Mindfulness requires our mind & body to be in same location & timeframe as each other. Our body is obviously always here in the present. Whenever our attention is taken to a future event or another place geographically by a message our body and mind are disconnected.

Eliminating interruptions thus improves our chances of a healthy response to current circumstances. So try no pings, and no checking the mobile / texting when you’re with others.

Conclusion

So, let’s reflect further on what we can do about it. Well it’s probably easy to see that with a few changes to our notification settings we can eliminate interruptions whenever it is possible to do so.

However many of us, are expected to be available at a moment’s notice to a raft of our colleagues. You can however still set yourself quiet times. 30 minutes several times a day without the demon ping will enable you to experience flow during an activity you enjoy. Remember to manage your colleagues’ expectations, let them know when your quiet times and agree some guidelines about exceptions. At the start of meetings let people know it’s a ‘mobiles off’ meeting. If you are expecting a really important message that you absolutely must answer during a meeting, let the other attendees know at the start. Avoid potentially ruffling feathers.

I hope this article will encourage us all question our tacit acceptance of the way today’s comms can create accidental attention-deficits. SO let’s re-examine our device notifications. Because the benefits to your productivity, communication, wellbeing and happiness could be significant.


As ever I’d like to conclude by sending you my best wishes for everything you are working to achieve.

Graham

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