Unlike other animals, humans possess executive attention that helps us stay focused. Without deep focus, we cannot perform any challenging intellectual activity or create or execute complex plans, but it’s not easy and requires training.
Think about your typical workday. How often are you interrupted either by an email or a colleague checking via WhatsApp that you’ve received their email?
Researcher Gloria Mark says that an average worker is interrupted every 40 seconds. Half of these interruptions come through technology, while the other half are caused by self-interrupting, a skill we learn from using digital devices.
Unlike computers, humans don’t switch well from one task to another. At the workplace, the cost of attention switching means higher workload and more stress, frustration, and mental effort, or what Mark calls “invisible work.” Hybrid work doesn’t help focus, either—hybrid workers are 2.54 times more likely to experience digital distractions, according to Gartner.
Task switching also lowers your intellectual abilities. In fact, the mere presence of a smartphone depletes problem-solving skills. When participants in one experiment were asked to put their phones in different locations and solve puzzles to test their intelligence levels, the group that consistently performed better was the one that put their phones in another room.
Lack of focus also costs us our ability to set and pursue long-term goals. To achieve a goal, we need to eliminate all distractions; otherwise, we risk spreading ourselves thin. Have you ever delayed an important intention, like going to the gym or learning how to play the guitar, because you chose to open Instagram for five minutes, then two hours later you were still scrolling?
Do we encourage focus in employees, or do we overload them with endless chats and emails? And instead of giving them thinking space, do we use workplace surveillance software to track what they are doing? We leverage our human ability to think deeply to create super computers that are capable of giving financial advice, analyzing the probability of having a particular form of cancer, and predicting the next likely place of a fire.
What if you started prioritizing deep focus and attention in your private life and at work?
If you start blocking regular deep focus hours in your calendar to work or study, without endless Zoom meetings, or choose to check emails only periodically—what difference would that make?
Imagine a meeting where others aren’t looking at their computers or phones when you are speaking because focus and real connection are valued. Or your manager was assessed based on how much focus their employees have, not how fast they respond to an email.
Would you like to work on such a team?
The ability to stay focused and achieve goals is what differentiates humans from other animals. How can you bring more focus into your life?
For a deeper dive, join me at ATD TechKnowledge 2023 for the session: Digital Transformation, Misunderstood. Future of Work and Digital Wellbeing.