The War on Attention

The War on Attention

“We cannot do everything at once.  But we can do SOMETHING at once.” – Calvin Coolidge

Let’s talk about…   [DING. Just a sec.]
about multi…   [BZZT. The President tweeted what?!]
about multi-tasking and how it…  [RING. Sorry, gotta take this.]
Wait, what were we talking about?

We are in the middle of a war. Our senses are being attacked by a fusillade of electronic stimuli. It’s a battle for which our opponents are armed with insideously sophisticated weaponry that they’ve managed to deploy in our offices, conference rooms, and even our pockets. It’s a war on attention and we’re losing. Badly.

As a facilitator, I am fighting back, and my first target is multi-tasking.

And I don’t have to tell you what it looks like because you see it every day. People text each other from across the table during a presentation. “Sorry I was on mute” is code for “I wasn’t paying attention.” People edit slides for their next meeting (which nobody will see because they’ll be editing slides for THEIR next meeting.)

But somehow, people still talk about their ability to multi-task as if it were a virtue. In a Forbes magazine survey of over 750 business executives, 64% said they prefer technology-enabled meetings to being face-to-face because they can multi-task. Like it’s a GOOD thing.

But we know better.

Psychologists and neuroscientists have told us for years that there’s no such thing as multi-tasking. When we’re listening to a presentation while reading an email, what we’re really doing is “switch-tasking” as our brains quickly and repeatedly flip back and forth between the two mental activities. Studies have shown that each switch consumes limited brain processing time which leads to eroded memory, increased errors, and a temporary lowering of IQ.

So what weaponry can we deploy to fight back?

  • Consider face-to-face: When the objectives require critical thinking, contemplation, problem-solving, and collaboration, there is still no substitute for being in the same room. Face-to-face meetings create the kind of emotional engagement that displaces the appetite for multi-tasking. Plus, it’s harder to “hide” when your colleagues are right across the table from you.
  • Scrub your invites: People are often lured away by other tasks because they really don’t have that much of a stake in the topics you’re covering. So, set them free! Only invite people who truly have skin in the game. Take good notes and send them to the everyone else.
  • Enforce ground rules: Declare at the beginning that all computers need to be lids-down and, tablets and phones need to be dark. Remind folks that, because you’ve only invited the truly critical players, you need them all to be in the game. Assign one person to be a note-taker, and send the notes out afterwards. Then, don’t blink! If you see violators, have the guts to call them out.
  • Poll the jury: The fear of public humiliation is a powerful motivator. Every 10 minutes or so, pause to ask people a provocative question, or invite them to share an insight, based on what has been discussed or presented so far. Literally go around the invite list and have everyone share something. Besides getting valuable insight, this will ensure people are paying attention.
  • Be a role model: Turn your phone off and close your messaging and email apps while you’re leading a meeting. If YOU can’t follow the rule, nobody else will. Plus, you’re going to need all of your available IQ, since you’re in charge!

So join me in the fight, fellow facilitators. Let’s refill the draining reservoir of attention. Let’s ban multi-tasking in favor of the sustained focus, critical thinking, and collaborative effort that our complex challenges (and our shareholders) demand.