Chances are, your attention span ain’t what it used to be.
Unbounded e-tools and the time urgency that comes with them have shredded it. Are you still with me? It’s hard to focus, I know. These days, many of us have the focusing power of a chicken minus its own head. The reason:
Failure to exercise control over the source of the brain outage, interruptions, many of which are self-inflicted.
Constant interruptions from cell calls, email and texts erode a part of the executive attention function in your brain, called effortful control, which regulates impulse control. That undermines your ability to control attention and resist impulsive behavior.
In other words, the more you check email, the more you have to check it.
The urge to check messages even though you just checked them five minutes ago is a telltale sign that your regulation equipment has left the building. Impulse control is on the blink — which also affects other things you’re trying to regulate, from avoiding chocolate to shoe stores. Without the ability to restrain impulsive behavior, you’re like a toddler on a rampage, lurching from this random item to the next.
The gadgets are running you, instead of the other way around.
E-tools are brilliant at playing to the social animal’s need for positive reinforcement, which can be insatiable. Rutgers’ Gayle Porter, co-author of a report on email addiction, says addiction to technology can be just as damaging as chemical or substance abuse. It has the same ability to break down self-regulation equipment.
Managing email is really about managing interruptions.
The toll on attention spans and productivity comes from the constant assault on concentration, as we’re forced to shift from primary tasks to secondary items. The intrusions wreak havoc with memory and performance, say researchers. Interruptions reduce primary task performance in several ways — by making everything take longer and by sidetracking the attention we have on the task at hand.
Studies show it can take 15 minutes for you to get back to wherever you were on the primary task after an interruption.
Interruptions don’t just scramble your attention, they also reduce your IQ, which can drop ten points when you’re being chronically interrupted. Distracted minds can’t see the big picture, make rash decisions and take in too much information too quickly until they’re overloaded.
We get stupid when we’re not managing the intrusions coming our way.
Massachusetts psychologist Edward Hollowell calls the syndrome Attention Deficit Trait (ADT). Unlike Attention Deficit Disorder, you’re not born with it. It’s a byproduct of information overload and the overcooked gray matter that results. It leads to a distracted, frenzied state; a short attention span; inability to focus, plan, or organize; chronic time urgency; impatience; and a sense that you are falling behind.
Our brains are paying the price for the lack of an essential management tool:
In a given day, the average knowledge worker checks messages 50 times, gets 77 Instant Messages and receives more than 100 emails. Multitasking fans ADT further. Each time your brain shifts to a different task, it takes a while for your thoughts to get back to where they were on that task.
That slows you down.
By up to 40%.
Studies at the University of Michigan and Vanderbilt University have shown that multitasking is really a crock. You are not doing multiple, high-thought tasks simultaneously, particularly anything involving language. There’s only one neural channel for the information to flow through. You’re switching back and forth between tasks, fraying attention in the process.
The good news is that ADT is not permanent.
You can get out from under the thumb of runaway e-tools and reclaim your attention and life by making adjustments to how you do your tasks. That means managing the barrage of messages you get every day, instead of simply reacting to the incoming. There are excellent tools proven by the research to cut email and interruptions. Every company, organization, department and division should have a program in place to control email and information overload and manage interruptions.
The cost of lost productivity from email overload every year amounts to $1 billion per 50,000 knowledge employees, according to a study at Intel.
Automatic reflex is not a management system. That’s how most of us handle messaging. Every email results in six, three going, three coming back. They’re like rabbits. We have to spay and neuter — by setting the terms of engagement.
If you have your email on autopilot, going off every five minutes, that’s a potential of 96 interruptions over the course of the day. You can cut that to 11, saving 85 interruptions, by checking manually every 45 minutes.
That’s still a lot of checking.
Researchers at Oklahoma State University found that four times daily is the most productive checking schedule, once in the morning, before lunch, after lunch and before you go home.
Start managing this attention-killer by checking your email manually at set times.
We all need to be doing things that build attention to counter the drains that are siphoning it away. By setting boundaries and making concerted adjustments to task practices, you can start to clear time for life and rebuild lost attention. One of the best attention-building tools is something you couldn’t conceive of in a frazzled, ADT state:
Whether it’s aikido, dancing or stunt kite flying, they force you to concentrate on the rules of the game and the action, so there’s no room for anything else in your head.
Total awareness is directed to the moment of experience.
That’s the state we want to have more of in work and life, since full engagement is when you’re at your most satisfied, remember more of what you’re doing and get a lot more done in less time.
But I’m sure your attention is probably long gone by now.
If you’ve made it this far, give me a shout and tell me how your attention span is doing and the e-tool challenges you have.
You’re in charge, not the devices.
Joe Robinson is a work-life balance and stress management trainer, an executive coach and author of Don’t Miss Your Life, Work to Live, and The Email Overload Survival Kit, an audio CD. You can find out more about his corporate trainings and seminars at www.worktolive.info. He blogs at www.dontmissyourlife.net, for the Huffington Post, and has appeared on CNN, the Today Show, All Things Considered, and many other media outlets.