Successful Selling: Finding time to focus – June 2023

By Sandy Smith

Harvard Business School professor Dr. Nancy Koehn teaches a course on leadership entitled “Power and Glory in Turbulent Times: From Lincoln to Estée Lauder to Steve Jobs.” She coined a term that describes the turbulence impacting every industry, as well as our society as a whole. The term is VUCU, which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and the unknown.

When explaining the concept at conferences, the PowerPoint slide of VUCU in my deck is a magnet for smartphone photos because the audience closely identifies with the symptom in their daily lives. It is my experience that there are a couple of major factors contributing to the turbulence.

John Naisbitt, an author who is often described as a business guru, said, “We are drowning in information and starving for knowledge.”

Noted psychiatrist and author Dr. Edward Hallowell said, “Never in history has the human brain been asked to track so many data points,” a situation that is overloading the brain’s circuits. We are simply expecting more from our brains than they have the energy to handle.

Neuroscientist Nicholas Carr said, “Information technology is changing our brains, making us less focused and less capable of deep thought.”

This information overload is also affecting the quality of our conversations. I read recently that five years ago the average conversation between two employees was 4.5 minutes, and today it is 15 seconds. It has been said that a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.

There is a nonprofit organization devoted to information overload: the Information Overload Research Group. According to its website, information overload wastes 25% of workers’ time, costing the U.S. economy $997 billion annually.

One of the ways many people try to cope with information overload is by multi-tasking. By doing so, they believe they are being more productive, when in reality they are merely switching their attention from one task to another, which leads to errors and diminishes the quality their work and relationships.

Writer and consultant Linda Stone coined the term “continuous partial attention,” which she defined as trying to stay connected to everything. The majority of today’s workforce “thinks for a living,” and it is our thinking that gets distracted. There are cases in which interruption and distraction pose serious safety issues. Pilots who fly intercontinental flights need focused time to type a series of letters and numbers into the navigation system’s computer to ensure the plane flies the correct course to avoid a mid-air collision. Information shows that while engaged in this critical task, they are often interrupted and distracted by an endless flow of visitors to the cockpit. Flight attendants, mechanics, ramp agents, food service personnel and parents accompanied by their children all demand the pilot’s attention. Some pilots have resorted to designating the cockpit a quiet, restricted zone while programming the navigation system.

I was recently consulting with a team of physicians and nurses at a large pediatric hospital. One thing we discovered was that interruption and distraction were the primary causes of medical errors. We found that the nurse in charge of distributing medication to the children was frequently interrupted with questions. The team developed a system of prevention by placing a red arm band on the nurse’s arm. This meant no communication with the nurse so she could focus completely on identifying and delivering the correct medication to the right patient.

A recent study by the University of California Irvine found that:
• the average office worker is interrupted every three minutes
• the average recovery time to fully refocus is 23 minutes
• the average number of pages open when using Windows on a desktop is eight
• the average number of times an employee checks email each hour is 30
• 28% of a worker’s day is spent with unnecessary interruptions

Attention span is the amount of concentrated time one spends on a task without being interrupted. There is growing evidence from a Microsoft study that our attention span is in decline. In the year 2000, the average attention span was 12 seconds. In 2015, it was 8.5 seconds. (Incidentally, the study found that the attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds.) The Microsoft study concluded that our minds wander at least 30% of the time.

Traditionally, managers assumed that the longer they could keep their employees in an office or cubicle, the more productive they would be. However, many companies today have found that modern managers are experiencing increased productivity and innovation when employees work away from the office. These employees are more productive because they are free from interruption, distraction and the stress of commuting to and from the office, and are able to focus on their work tasks.

I had a unique opportunity to interview Dr. Hallowell, a renowned expert on attention-deficit disorder and attention-deficit hyperactive disorder who also counsels businesspeople who have lost their ability to focus. Many of his clients refer to him as “the focus doctor.” Dr. Hallowell told me that many of his business clients do not clinically have ADHD, but they behave as if they do. He said they have an “attention deficit trait,” which may include:
• a persistent feeling of being rushed or a constant sense of urgency
• an inability to sustain full attention to a thought or conversation
• a tendency toward impatience, frustration or irritability
• a tendency to jump from task to task, idea to idea or place to place
• a tendency to make decisions impulsively, rather than think them through

Dr. Hallowell referred to the boiled-frog syndrome, an urban legend that if you put a frog in hot water, it will jump out to save itself. However, if you put the frog in lukewarm water and turn up the heat, the frog will gradually adapt to the rising heat and eventually be boiled alive.

Dr. Hallowell said that the heat got turned up on most of us with the advent of the Internet and the proliferation of smartphones, which resulted in dramatically increased corporate expectations to do more, better, faster and with fewer resources. In my own experience in corporate America, I have found that the increased workload and expanding demands on employees are leading to work addiction. To get the work done, many employees have to work late or through the weekends.

Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation and Walt Disney Studios, said that while making Toy Story 2, his employees worked long hours, seven days a week over a grueling nine-month period to complete the movie. By the end of the nine months, a third of the staff had repetitive stress injuries. An exhausted artist forgot to drop his infant son off at daycare and left him in his car in the parking lot for three hours. When the child was discovered, he was unconscious. Fortunately, the child was revived, but the incident traumatized Catmull and his team. Pixar had drifted into dangerous territory by putting the movie project ahead of the wellbeing of its people. This was a wakeup call to the organization to put people first.

The story also illustrates what can occur when we lose focus on what matters most. Since volatility, uncertainty, complexity and the unknown are unlikely to decrease, we need to find practical ways to ensure our focus.

Prioritize what matters most, this minute, this hour and this day: Concentrate on your most important tasks for a designated period, say 90 uninterrupted minutes. Then shift your attention to more routine but pressing matters, such as checking emails, returning calls, taking a coffee break or going for a short walk.

Create a work environment that reduces interruption and distraction: For example, close your door and inform colleagues you will be unavailable to a specific period.

Temporarily unplug yourself from the electronic world: Allow downtime to simply do nothing. Dr. Hallowell told me that Tim Armstrong, CEO of AOL, established a mandatory policy for his senior leaders to commit four hours a week to just thinking. It is called “10% think time.” Dr. Hallowell said that at first the AOL leaders resisted but, later, discovered fresh, innovative ideas that helped to transform the company.

Copyright 2023 Floor Focus 

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