Dividing Attention Deliberately

Instead of battling distraction, embrace your brain's proclivity for it, writes Cathy Davidson in the Harvard Business Review.

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Cathy Davidson

Seven IBM employees, each in a different location, are on a conference call. As two of them talk over the telephone line, two others chat about the conversation via text messages; another accesses a spreadsheet, trying to answer a question posed earlier in the call; still another Googles a potential competitor; and the last taps out an e-mail to a colleague who is not on the call. Are these employees distracted by 21st-century technology? Or has 21st-century technology empowered them to pay attention in a new, perhaps more natural, creative, and productive way?We all know the story of contemporary distractions. In the past decade the world has gone from a total of 12 billion e-mails a day to 247 billion, from 400,000 text messages to 4.5 billion, from an individual average of 2.7 hours a week online to 18 hours. We may still sit in offices or cubicles designed to shut out the external world, but the center of our work life is a computer that keeps us connected to that world -- to colleagues, customers, clients, family, community, entertainment, and hobbies; to everything we know we should be doing and everything we know we shouldn't.Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, has shown that modern workers switch tasks an average of once every three minutes. Once their focus on a given task has been interrupted, it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to it. Some say we should try to eliminate those distractions. But I think today's managers are capable of coping with and sometimes even thriving on them.Mark's research also shows that 44% of the switches cited above are caused by "internal" rather than "external" sources of distraction --meaning that our minds simply wander. We can't blame technology for our failure to focus, because our brains are built to multitask. Close your eyes for five minutes and notice how your thoughts stray, jump, zigzag, and double back. Success in 20th-century factories and offices may have required paying strict attention to systematic tasks and taking those tasks to completion, but that is not a natural way for humans to operate. Perhaps our 21st-century connectedness gives us the freedom to acknowledge this.Why should we make undivided attention an ideal and cling to it in an environment where it is so hard for us? Why not "unlearn" that skill, as the futurist Alvin Toffler puts it, in order to let our brains work the way they do naturally? In my research on attention, I've come across many tools that help managers eliminate distraction. A productivity application called Freedom lets you block the internet for a specified period, and Concentrate is a service that makes available only those programs you need for a specific task. The former Apple executive Linda Stone, who coined the term "continuous partial attention" to describe our habit of constantly scanning the horizon and never fully focusing on a given task, suggests simply turning technology off.Such controls on information streams do help some people in some situations feel more focused and productive. But it's not clear that their feelings reflect reality. A study of 300 workers conducted at the University of Melbourne shows that although people who use the internet at work for personal reasons assume it makes them less productive, it actually increases their productivity by 9%. That isn't true for internet "addicts" who use social media to excess. But for those whose minds simply wander between work and play, a break to surf the web can provide a cognitive refresher that improves their performance when they return to the task at hand. This even has its own acronym: WILB, for "workplace internet leisure browsing." Maybe managers will learn to embrace it as a positive distraction that relieves stress and boosts creativity.Another productivity-enhancing strategy is to deliberately divide attention and harness it, just as those IBM employees did on their conference call. Charles Hamilton, an e-learning strategy leader at IBM, explains that his managers are more engaged in their virtual meetings because of the simultaneous text messaging (which they call "back chatting") that has become standard practice; in fact, when the feature isn't turned on, they start to worry that someone isn't being heard. By encouraging these multiple conversations, managers marshal wandering minds. They also promote more-equitable participation in group calls -- people can respond without interrupting -- and ensure that the entire conversation flows in an interactive and productive way. Attention is "distributed" more evenly and fluidly, rather than being dominated by one or two loquacious participants who leave everyone else disengaged and distracted.At the individual level, a good example is the software developer Aza Raskin, formerly of Mozilla and now the CEO of the start-up Massive Health. Raskin knows he can't spend all day, every day focused on only the most important tasks. But he sets limits on his divided attention by using two computers at his workstation and another down the hall. The work he must accomplish is loaded onto the first, most prominent device, with no internet connection. Off to the side is a machine that offers access to e-mail and the web. The third, a short walk away, is linked to Twitter and his blog, with a flashing reminder of the "real" work he needs to do back at his desk. His strategy is to make procrastination difficult but not impossible, because complete focus is beyond his reach -- and not necessarily even desirable in today's workplace. Raskin's three computers help him program interruption and mind-­wandering into his day.Not everyone has the same style or requirements for attention, so a good 21st-century manager needs to figure out how to let multimedia work to everyone's advantage. Gazing aimlessly out the window is as important to creativity as logging on to Facebook to view the latest photo of your young nephew and then returning to work in a better, lighter, more productive mood. Research shows that accident, disruption, distraction, and difference increase our motivation to learn and to solve problems, both individually and collectively. The key is to embrace and even create positive interruptions.In the future, continuous partial attention will perhaps be seen not as a problem but as a critical new skill. And maybe we won't call it multitasking -- we'll call it multi-inspiring.