The Attention Deficit Recession

Let’s face it, we live in a world of divided attention. Whether talking on the phone while driving, checking email while on a conference call, or Tweeting during a live presentation, we are all guilty of an obsession with multitasking. And as a result of this behavior, we are completely destroying our pathetic little lives!

Oh… sorry… typo there. I was updating my Facebook status while writing that last bit and forgot the topic. Right! Ok. Multitasking (re-reading the opening paragraph again). Perhaps psychologist William James can get us back on track with his definition of attention:

“Everyone knows what attention is.”

Um, thanks William. Care to elaborate?

“It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German.“

That’s better, thank you. It is this “withdrawal from some things” that we struggle with in today’s 7×24 uber-connected environment. So what are the negative effects of Zerstreutheit? In his 2007 Atlantic column, The Autumn of the Multitaskers, writer Walter Kirn provides an glimpse:

“[The] next inevitable contraction that everybody knows is coming, believes should have come a couple of years ago, and suspects can be postponed only if we pay no attention to the matter and stay very, very busy. I mean the end of the decade we may call the Roaring Zeros—these years of overleveraged, overextended, technology-driven, and finally unsustainable investment of our limited human energies in the dream of infinite connectivity. The overdoses, freak-outs, and collapses that converged in the late ’60s to wipe out the gains of the wide-eyed optimists who set out to “Be Here Now” but ended up making posters that read “Speed Kills” are finally coming for the wired utopians who strove to “Be Everywhere at Once” but lost a measure of innocence, or should have, when their manic credo convinced us we could fight two wars at the same time.

The Multitasking Crash. The Attention-Deficit Recession.”

That’s catchy. But c’mon Walter, the pressure to be everywhere and do everything at once is palpable, and the unspoken rule at most organizations is to be “on demand” whenever and wherever your company needs you. Is it really that harmful?

“[C]ertain studies find that multitasking boosts the level of stress-related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and wears down our systems through biochemical friction, prematurely aging us. In the short term, the confusion, fatigue, and chaos merely hamper our ability to focus and analyze, but in the long term, they may cause it to atrophy.“

Hmm, “atrophy” doesn’t really sound analogous to “productivity”, does it? It seems like we all know we should slow down, focus, prioritize and breathe. If only there were a quote from thousands of years ago that could sum up this topic in a brilliantly simplistic way….

“To do two things at once is to do neither.” ~ Publilius Syrus, Roman slave, first century B.C.

Well done Publilius. So what about you? What tips and tricks do you have for dealing with divided attention? What does your organization do to encourage focused attention? Share your trade secrets and let’s keep the conversation going.

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I’ve heard different organization take approaches like “No email Friday”, “No meetings on a specific day of week”, “standing 15 minute meetings”, and more. Personally if I really need to focus I’ll disconnect from the Internet and turn the phone off for a bit. I’ve also heard that there are new vacations that promote themselves of being totally off the grid. No email/phone access. Personally I like being connected but I think each person needs to figure out how best to manage their time in this new information society…

Paul Eric Davis

The core question professionals should ask themselves every day is: “Am I accomplishing the things that matter most and still finding time to do the things I enjoy?” If the answer is “no” to both, then your “Zerstreutheit” is clearly a problem. We all must work long hours at certain times. But if you can’t deliver on your most critical work mandates without consistently booking 12-hour days — take a look at how you’re spending your time. Figure out if the cost to your productivity, your health and your personal goals is worth it. Starting your day with the question above will keep you focused. Often, being “always on” is not the same as delivering what you (and probably your employer) really need.