The unrelenting urgency that characterizes the modern workplace has bred an unprecedented fragmentation of our attention. The frenzy of activity that occurs in a typical day in most organizations borders on the equivalent of the Gravitron ride at the carnival. Whirring and whizzing around trying to balance the demands of bosses, boards, direct reports, customers, vendors, and peers, we find ourselves losing the footing beneath us. And perhaps what’s worse, we’re robbed of our centeredness and ability to think reflectively and strategically. We’re 50 ft. underwater in a full-blown attentional crisis.
And it’s not one we didn’t see coming. Over 40 years ago, Herbert Smith, social scientist and winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in Economics foresaw this snowball of information and reactivity slowly amassing. He claimed, “What information consumes is rather obvious. It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” Caught up in the inertia of information consumption, we’re trading insight for knowledge. We sacrifice our reasoning power and begin to think far too concretely, losing sight of the bigger picture. And our brains are strained like silly putty in the middle.
We aren’t cognitively built to process the amount of information we are required to on a given day. The bombardment of information our prefrontal cortex, which is the area of our brain responsible for high level thinking, must process for us to avoid falling behind exceeds its capacity, rendering us severely handicapped in making effective decisions. We become disconnected from our source of mental clarity. Taxed and irritable from this overload we shift into being reactive, caught up in a pattern that’s incredibly difficult to break free from.
Too often when faced with extreme demand, our urge is ignoring the indicators that our energy is flagging, such as wandering attention and increased irritability, and to grab a cup of coffee and push through it. Only we don’t realize our performance suffers when we do this. Despite the credit we give ourselves, we’re actually rather horrible multitaskers. And when we try to do too much at once, we tap into our energy reserves in a depleting way: by calling on stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. They give us a quick boost but come at a silent toll in that they prompt a greater level of anxiety and reactivity. And it is impossible to do our best work when we’re stressed out.
The good news is there are effective, practical strategies we can use to deal with information overwhelm. These strategies all have the same basic foundation. It’s based on understanding our innate biology. During the day, we oscillate every 90 minutes or so from higher to lower alertness. We call these ultradian cycles. Our bodies literally ask us for a break. Whether we listen or not is a whole other story. But for those of us who do, we’re in far greater control of our attention and our overall mood because the better we maintain an awareness of the need for these breaks, the better our performance fares.
So what are some practical approaches for beating this attentional crisis? For starters, don’t try to change everything overnight. Try noticing times when you’re pushing too hard and not getting as far along as you’d like. Make note. And when you’re ready to move from awareness to action and start the change cycle, experiment a little bit. Treat your workplace like your laboratory. You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to find the willingness and openness to embrace a little discomfort that’s going to be inherent in overriding some of your default tendencies. If any of you are up for the challenge, try these out and see what sticks:
1. Schedule some me-time. So many of my clients, and business professionals in general, struggle with permitting themselves time to just sit and be. Many feel guilt or intense pressure that makes this particularly challenging. They’d like to carve out time to think reflectively, meditate, play a round of golf or do some other sort of physical activity that helps the stress of the day melt away. But the grooves of their patterns keep them stuck. They have to be intentional about shifting out of these ruts. And they have to pick activities that work for them. My advice to those of you who experience a similar challenge, whatever it is that brings you relief and heightens your energy, literally schedule appointments you can keep the same way you’d schedule a client meeting. You’ll be more likely to keep them and over time they won’t be so difficult to engrain in your daily routine.
2. Follow the 90-minute rule. Pay attention to your energy levels throughout the day. Once you’re more in tune with your ultradian rhythms, the greater your focus will be. Find ways to replenish your energy every 90 minutes or so. It could be taking a walk, doing some focused breathing exercises or progressive relaxation techniques, listening to a TED Talk on your laptop, or just stopping to ask a coworker how her day is going. Breaking the mental pattern of attention on one task will free up your energy so that when you return to what you were doing, though it’s somewhat counterintuitive, you’ll actually have greater focus.
3. Freshen your perspective around critical decisions. Too often we feel compelled to respond instantaneously when asked to make decisions. And when these are of high importance, the stakes are high. When you find yourself asked to make a call around a situation that could have significant impact, follow this sequence:
(1) Acknowledge the validity of the situation at hand and ask for time to give it the proper attention and thought. Though it may seem like you’re dodging the issue, most people will understand you just need time to consider it in greater depth and will respect you for taking the time to do so.
(2) Allot some distraction-free time to reflect on the issue at hand. Suspend everything else. Disable the sound on your email pop-ups, turn your ringer to mute, and temporarily park your many other demands and challenges. They will inevitably be there once you’ve solved this problem.
(3) Consider the issue from as many angles as possible. How will this affect you and those in your immediate workgroup? How will it affect others in the organization? What are the long-term consequences of one approach over another? Let yourself be guided by your intuitions and allow for creativity to enter into the equation.
And finally, (4) Get unbiased feedback, or better yet, a supportive sounding board. Before setting anything in stone, it’s usually helpful to get some outside input. If you have someone you can trust to bounce ideas around with, take advantage. The interaction will help kick your brain into a more highly functioning gear and you may get some helpful ideas you hadn’t considered on your own. And the validation that comes from knowing your ideas were on target from the get-go, well those should be on a MasterCard commercial one of these days.
In sum, when you feel suspended in the cycling whirlwind of information and work overload, remember you’re serving both yourself and your organization by taking a much deserved break. There’s power in the pause that only you can tap into. It’s not how many hours you sit behind a desk that count, its how much energy you bring to your work and, ultimately, the value you create because of your efforts. So protect your energy. Work intensely and recover deeply. Both are required to do your best work and be your best self.