Have you ever tried to read something—an article, a book, an email—only to find that you’ve reached the end and have absolutely no idea what you just read? Perhaps your mind was too busy thinking about what you could be doing, or you’re distracted by the conversation happening nearby, a co-worker asking for assistance, your phone buzzing with a text message, an email, a tweet, another text or a Facebook chat.
Let’s be real (if you’re still with me here)—distractions in this day and age are everywhere. The speed and degree to which our brains are demanded to constantly process and multitask have ballooned to an extreme. And if you’re anything like me, I find myself having to consciously make an effort to create space for focus and time for absorption that I’d otherwise rarely receive.
The reality of our globally-connected, integrated and flattened world is that the amount of distractions available to us will not decrease—if anything, they will only continue to intensify. The consequences of such a reality pose real questions for the future of our species and how it will adapt to information saturation, shorter attention spans and the heightened demand for our brains to multitask.
Though I could elaborate on how these phenomena have affected a high school student in a classroom, or how they have transformed the nature of our communications and writing, I’d like to focus on the effects in the workplace. I recently read an exposé—not without interruption—put out by the global firm Steelcase, which explored the yin-yang duality of what people need to be highly productive: a balance between collaboration (with others, social interaction, time to share) and individual privacy (absorption, deep thinking, and the work “flow”).
As workplace layout and design have become increasingly collaborative and open (shared workspaces, desks and constant conversation), productivity may not track accordingly. In a study shared by Steelcase, office workers are interrupted as often as every three minutes by digital and human interactions. Once a distraction occurs, a disruptive ripple effect ensues—after one, it’s harder to stop ourselves from succumbing to another and it can take as long as 23 minutes to return to the task at hand. While multitasking, the study measured a 5-point decrease in a woman’s IQ, and a 15-point decrease in a man’s IQ. The need for privacy is also not limited to culture or country—global results demonstrated that even in collectivist cultures like China’s, people around the world crave privacy for various reasons.
These results have significant weight to bear and pose compelling considerations when designing a company’s workplace, managing employees, or optimizing worker satisfaction and productivity. Indeed, as David Rock, consultant, author and founder of NeuroLeadership Group states, we face an “epidemic of overwhelm” that detracts from every company’s bottom line.
“The amount of distractions that we deal with each day and the actual amount we need to achieve each hour have gone up considerably. Information travels literally at the speed of light, many times faster than it traveled just 200 years ago. With this efficiency of information flow and communication, we’re decreasing our ability to pay attention and make decisions. There are limitations in our capacity to process, limits to what we can do.”
Rock explained that those who use multiple forms of media and consistently divide their focus actually become worse at it over time, overall decreasing their attention spans and productivity.
So, as innovators, creative thinkers and the wheels of the future, what are we to do in the face of this “epidemic of overwhelm” to ensure we leverage our needs for collaboration and yet allow our minds space and time to absorb and focus?
Dare to Innovate recognizes the importance of “me time”—time away from the noise, distraction, information flow in the external world—and incorporates this module into the flow of its curriculum to allow all entrepreneurs time to reflect, absorb and self-analyze. As Rock explains, there is no single solution for all—each person’s needs are different and varied and therefore, any good leader might consider allowing her employees space and flexibility for work optimization, absorption and innovation.
Rock also points out that as individuals, we must recognize that our brains themselves need attention—seven kinds, to be exact. Here are the major neuro-cognitive activities that nurture the brain:
Sleep time. Refreshes the mind and body, and consolidates memory.
Connecting time. The healing power of relationships.
Play time. The joy of experimenting with life.
Physical time. Improve the brain’s plasticity through exercise.
Downtime. Disconnecting for integration and insight.
Focus time. Attention management for performance.
Time-in. Reflection, attunement and mindfulness.
“To be ultimately healthy, we really need all seven of these types of activity,” says Rock. “The ones we tend to ignore are sleep time, connecting time and play time. These tend to be much more important than we realize for healthy brain functioning.”