Overcoming a Culture of Distraction
What is the average attention span of the average working adult? I’m not sure. I know it’s short. You know how I know that? I lost interest trying to find the answer because it wasn’t the first result that came up from my Google search. Just kidding. I actually got a text while I was looking for the answer and just never got back around to figuring it out.
Kidding again. Sorry to cry wolf just to make a point.
I do know one thing for sure. Our culture is training us to be distracted. All the time. The mind is an incredibly powerful tool. The most powerful tool we will ever control, in fact. The problem is that our mind is molded to perform how we train it, and everything in our daily lives has shifted to distraction-training.
Our smartphones are the worst. It’s almost impossible to have a conversation with somebody for five minutes without them checking their phone multiple times. Or worse, they have the phone in their hand the entire time you are talking. Hey, I’m guilty too.
But it’s not just our phones. Even at Fortune 500 companies we have added more and more “communication tools” and changed the environment of the workplace to one of distraction. Google chats are constantly popping up on the computer screen. Email clients chime every time we get a new email. Open-office layouts make it so people see you at your desk, and just call your name the moment they have a question. Who cares that you are trying to formulate a strategy for a critical pricing negotiation later today?
The thesis is that immediate communication makes things faster. Collaboration and connection improves our thinking. Access to all this technology is good, right? Innovation is bred in open-office environments (really?).
Maybe for some things this is true. But I believe we are causing a major problem as well. People are losing their ability to CONCENTRATE. What do I mean by concentrate? I like this definition from Napoleon Hill’s book “The Law of Success.”
“Concentration is the act of focusing the mind upon a given desire until ways and means for its realization have been worked out and successfully put into operation. It means the ability to control your attention and focus it on a given problem until you have solved it.”
Concentration is what’s required to solve the really tough problems. Concentration is what’s required to achieve breakthrough innovation, and unprecedented productivity. Concentration is how companies will unlock the latent potential of their employees. When was the last time you sat at your desk and worked, for 3 hours nonstop, on a single challenging problem? I can’t remember.
Repetition is the mother of skill. Tony Robbins says that all the time. We become great at the things we practice the most. Our lives are a constant practice of distraction. We don’t focus on one thing for more than a moment, ever. So why are we surprised when we struggle to sit down and finish our taxes, or write a blog post, or do anything that takes more than a few minutes? We justify the way our mind works with noble excuses like “multi-tasking” or “keeping up with the speed of business.”
My belief is that we will look back in ten years and realize that we have lost an incredible amount of productivity overall due to lack of concentration. People will do a lot of things (maybe even more total things), but all of them disconnected and never staying with the tough problems until they are solved. This will play out in our workplace, in our relationships, and in all sorts of ways we can’t yet see.
I love giving and receiving coaching because it helps me to practice concentration. Sitting with a great coach pulls you into the moment and forces you to shut off the phone, the outside distractions, and organize your mind into one thought. Meditation and mindfulness tools are also good ways to practice concentration and undo the harmful effects of constant distraction. There are so many great tools out there, but the app Headspace is a great place to start.
Want to test yourself and see how real this distraction crisis is becoming? Take 24 hours for solitude and silence. Leave your phone behind, take nothing but a journal and pen, and enjoy 24 hours away from home (ideally in a beautiful place surrounded by nature) and see how you feel. Report back to me what you experience. Believe me, this is harder than it sounds.
The future belongs to those who can concentrate. It requires self-control, self-mastery. If you finished this post in one sitting, you’re off to a good start.