We are attention sick.

July 5, 2022

Last week I suggested that the people we lead or love might be performing poorly or unable to focus because there’s something going on behind their eyes you just can’t see. They are worried, constantly rehearsing their pain and fears. This requires empathy, patience and listening. How are you doing with that?

I really wish that was all we had to be concerned about as we seek to lead in this new, unsettling world. But there are other powerful factors that are stealing the focus of the people we count on and care for. All of them…all of us… are losing our ability to be present and concentrate. I recommend to you the book Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention – and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari. This book both made great sense and freaked me out at the same time!

\Here are just a few of Hari’s alarming stats and insights on our lost capacity to focus:

  • We touch our phones 2617 times every 24 hours. The average screen time per day for the average American is 3 hours and 15 minutes.
  • We are increasingly speed-reading life, skimming hurriedly from one thing to another, absorbing less and less.
  • “Your brain can only produce one or two thoughts in your conscious mind at once. That’s it. We have very limited cognitive capacity. It is a myth to think that we can actually think about 3, 5, 10 things at the same time. When people think they’re doing several things at once, they’re actually juggling. They’re switching back and forth. They are reconfiguring their brain moment to moment, task to task, and that comes with a cost.” Professor Earl Miller, MIT
  • Most office workers never get an hour to themselves without being interrupted. The average CEO of a Fortune 500 company gets just 28 uninterrupted minutes a day.
  • “We are living in an attentional pathogenic culture – an environment in which sustained and deep focus is extremely hard for all of us.” Dr. Joel Nigg, Oregon Health and Science University”

The impact of this “attentional pathogenic culture” is devastating to business, families and relationships. We make way more mistakes. Our memories are failing. Our problem solving is weakened. We cannot get into “the flow”. We’re far less creative. We’ve stopped reading. And we’re not sleeping!

  • 40% of Americans are chronically sleep deprived, getting less than the necessary minimum of seven hours a night. Since 1942, the average amount of time a person sleeps has been slashed by an hour every night.

Solutions?

I wish there were just a few handy life hacks we could recommend to our people that would help them regain their focus, but there aren’t. They need to make significant lifestyle adjustments and we need to help them.

First, leaders of companies, communities and families must ring the alarm bell on this incapacitating cultural phenomena. Make this a point of conversation. I hated doing this myself, but time and task tracking is essential to not deluding ourselves.

We need to help one another get a grip on our screen time. Aetna International reveals that 3 in 4 office workers say restricting screen time would benefit their mental and physical health.

How about email-free time zones? Or what if each team member was given regular mini-sabbaticals ranging from 30 minutes to 3 days?

Mostly, we need to have open, honest conversations with each other, one-on-one or in community. Perhaps a community-wide dialogue on the statement “Here’s why I can’t focus like I used to.”

And, of course, leaders gotta lead. Keep your phone out of sight and on silent when you are with your people. Model a slower pace. Calm your constant “We’ve got to take the next hill” rhetoric. I once had a valued friend and employee shake his head and sigh as he said to me, “I’ll never be able to keep up with you.” I regret that.

I wish for those of us who lead other human beings that we would slow down, limit our social media, read real books, eat real lunches, call instead of text, notice each other, turn off our emails, play games and take a nap every now and then. And create a culture where all of that is normal.

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