Dr. Don Vaughn is a neuroscientist, an author, a speaker and an extremely interesting guy to have a conversation with. I had the recent privilege of chatting with Don about the future of our brains, and specifically of how we balance the barrage of inbound stimuli that can distract you during your day. As they say, “the struggle is real” and it is powerful.
Attention is a hot commodity
Prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, studies showed the average person is bombarded with as many as 4,000 messages per day. These messages come from a combination of advertising, marketing, notifications, alerts, emails, calls and more. Some are very passive, blending into the background but having a subtle build-up over time. Others are intrusive, invasive and break through the clutter. All of them are intended invoke a response, and all of them are vying for your attention. It’s like being a parent, working at home and having 4,000 children constantly asking you for something. Okay, that might be an exaggeration to make a point, but to those of us who are parents with young kids in these days, it feels like a reality at times.
Your ability to pay attention is one of your most prized resources. Don points out that when you become distracted, it can take an average of 30 minutes to get back into “the groove” you were in. For some people, it can take up to 2 hours and that delay can crush productivity. Productivity is the word of the day as people are trying to balance work and life while being stuck at home during in a pandemic world. Companies are looking to the future, both near and long-term. In the near future, they’re looking at ways to maintain a high level of productivity. In the long term, they’re looking at a hybrid workplace where teams may remain distributed and need to maintain the ability to collaborate in a flexible working environment. Both situations require tools and platforms that enable interaction and sharing, but also the opportunity for people to focus and pay attention to their work.
Finding productivity in short bursts
Studies show that short bursts of focus can be extremely productive. Some of these studies mention 25-minute bursts. I tend to subscribe to a 60-minute burst with a single small break. These bursts allow you to drop into a groove, maintain your attention and pursue a concept to a point where you feel a logical pause. After the burst you can take a breath, focus and get back into it for a logical conclusion. It becomes important for people to block sections of their week for these bursts of thinking and focus. I personally lock in 6 hours per week, scattered over different days. These periods can be moved, but never canceled. They ensure I remain productive, even when the rest of my day is spent on video call after video call. During these times, I employ techniques to reduce interruptions and distractions. They include: closing applications, putting on headphones and removing my phone from immediate line of sight. By implementing these little adjustments, productivity is maintained. Without them, focus is lost and my productivity wanes.
Empathy and human connection
An inability to pay attention can diminish results over time, hence a negative impact on productivity. You need these bursts of attention to keep you feeling positive. People take pride in their work, and they need to feel they are doing well and producing. Co-workers need to have empathy towards one another and acknowledge that we all need time to focus. Don speaks a lot about empathy and human connection. Video conferences have become the defacto means of maintaining that connection. Video allows you to see the other person and look them in the eye. Video allows for body language, tone and character to enter your conversation. Phone calls are difficult. It’s easier to be rude when you can’t see the person you’re talking to. Email is worse. Email has no tone. When you read an email, you hear the tone based on your current state of mind. Negativity can arise from responses to emails or confrontational phone calls more than video calls. On a video call you can see someone, read their body language and create empathy in your conversation. You can read the room and adjust your delivery to match. This empathy goes a long way to fostering a better working environment.
As teams work remotely or find their way back to the office in some capacity, attention and empathy are going to be key to success. Teams need to collaborate. Individual contributors need to be able to focus. Managers need to foster the opportunity for employees to pay attention and not degrade their productivity due to distraction and interruption. And businesses need to understand that technology and flexibility can be employed to create the optimal environment for the future.
Check out the session with Dr. Don Vaughn and hear more about attention, empathy and the future of the workplace.
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