We have entered an age of distraction. On average, people only work 3 minutes before interruption. It takes 23 minutes to get back to the original task.
At home, 60% of people spend more time staring at a screen than talking with their partner. 88% use a second screen while watching TV. Think about that. We can't even focus on the device that used to be considered the cause of ADD.
The way we manage our attention has incredible consequences on our relationships, the quality and efficiency of our work, our capacity for self-control, and, at its root, who we are becoming individually, organizationally, and culturally.
So how do we better control the allocation of our attention? First, we must understand how attention works. There are two systems of attention in your brain.
System #1: Bottom up attention. This system of your brain is wired to seek new and novel stimulus with a particular focus on finding pleasure (ie. propagation) and avoiding pain. If you are in a jungle shared with a lion, the earlier you see that beast running at you, the better your odds of your buddy being food and not you. Your immediate needs are driven by this system.
#2: Our top down system, or executive control, allows us to make active decisions about where we will focus. You can file your taxes, or at least fill out the extension. Your kids CAN clean their room. Your spouse has the capacity to (finally) put that scrapbook together of the Disney vacation the family took 6 months ago. Your future self loves it when your top down system wins.
The key is to set up our lives in ways that put our 'top down' system in control. Here are the four factors (the four E's):
The top down system requires far more mental energy. It’s a valuable and depleting resource. The more energy we have, the easier it is to focus. Here's one practical way to use your energy more effectively: Complete your most mentally exhausting tasks early in the day. Don't spend your morning responding to emails. Spend your morning pumping out that hefty proposal, while leaving the inconsequential emails for the afternoon.
Your brain constantly changes based on your prior experiences. Scientists call this neuroplasticity. Let's use a 16 year old for example. They know everything in the world. Just ask them. Yet, they can't merge into oncoming traffic without causing everyone else to scream in sheer terror. 16 year olds simply don't have the experiences to effectively interpret the thousands of pieces of data coming at them. It’s all new and novel. On the other hand, the more active focus you give to a particular sphere, the broader you will be able to focus within that sphere. Distracted work, unfortunately, leads to a need for more distraction required by your brain to keep you from feeling bored. Your experiences shape your focus.
We are wired for distraction due to our sensory system always wanting to be stimulated. The best way to limit those distractions is to ensure our environment doesn't contain them. In today's world, the most important ‘environment’ to control is your virtual environment. Email is a cesspool of distraction, always offering a new potential reward from the next inbox notification. To rid yourself of this land mine, simply make the calendar your home screen and then schedule email checks into your day along with the tasks you actually need to get done.
Why do you find yourself checking Facebook when you should be finishing the project? Because your family is on Facebook. Your friends are on Facebook. The classmate from senior level English (who you didn't even talk to then) is on Facebook- and they are skiing in Europe! It makes total sense that we want to check in on the people who mean the most to us. Unfortunately, this distracted work-style actually disconnects us from the purpose of our jobs (no wonder 70% of US workers are disengaged). And our emotions guide our focus. If you want to focus, you must take the time to remind yourself why the work you are doing matters. And, in case you don't remember, your work DOES matter.
Your attention is your most precious resource. How you allocate it will govern the depth, or shallowness, of your relationships. It will make you better, or worse, at your job. It will give you meaning, or make you lose it. It's time to use the factors of attention to take control, or not. The choice is yours. Look! A funny cat video!