Attention in the 21st Century

Attention in the 21st Century   

The current technological revolution has become synonymous with productivity in the modern American workplace. Our senses are bombarded with a wide array of new and ever-changing stimuli. Instant communication anywhere at any time, instant access to virtually unlimited information, and instant connectedness. Although the amount of information immediately available to us has drastically increased, our brain’s ability to attend has changed little throughout our evolution. Knowing this, Apex Performance, Inc. conducted a survey to get a better understanding of how the American worker is responding to the smartphone and tablet revolution.

Apex asked 301 full-time business people (58% male, 41% female) about their habits since the smartphone/tablet revolution, and compiled responses in order to create a cross-section of today’s office employee. Two-thirds of respondents reported that they receive over 21 emails on a typical day. While less than 3 emails an hour at work may not seem like a distraction, consider some other major findings of the Apex survey. For one, when respondents were asked how often they check their email, the most popular answer from both men and women was “every time I get an email notification.” That equates to opening your inbox once every 20 minutes. Again, that may seem minimally distracting in the grand scheme of an entire workday. However, related research on attention in the workplace tells a different story.

A few years ago, Eric Horvitz, an internal research scientist at Microsoft, wanted to see how people dealt with everyday distractions such as an email notification (read more here). He found that it took the average Microsoft employee 15 minutes to return to their previous task after being distracted by an email, phone call, or instant message. Yes, that is a quarter of an hour for EVERY distraction! By viewing the results of the Apex survey through the lens of Horvitz’s findings, it paints a troubling picture of today’s work environment. The typical 21st century employee seems to only be focusing on any one task for approximately 15 minutes an hour, at most! And that does not even take into account phone calls and meetings. Dare we mention the 20% of respondents that said they receive over 50 emails a day?

Keep in mind, that’s just to check an email that they may not respond to right away. Apex then asked how long it took for the respondents to actually answer work-related emails. How did people respond? Interestingly, men seem to take slightly longer to respond to work-related emails, with the majority taking between one and four hours to send a response, while the majority of the female respondents said they take less than 1 hour to respond to a work-related email. All this time spent on emails, or at least distracted by email notifications, does not seem to lend itself to a productive workday. However, smartphones and tablets are here to stay, and there is little chance of changing the amount of distractions in the 21st century workplace.

There is, however, some good news in all of this. Today’s business leaders need not shun technology and instant communication in the work environment; the smartphone and tablet have helped streamline businesses immensely. But, what leaders must provide to their workforce is a method to minimize refocusing time and a way to shift their attention more efficiently. The skills attained through the Apex Peak Performance Program teach clients not what to pay attention to, but how to pay attention. Quickly regaining focus after distractions is a valuable skill and one that can be taught. Apex Performance does not claim to help rid our clients’ lives of distractions! We know this to be impossible. What we do teach, however, is a better way for people to direct their attention and sustain concentration amidst distractions in order to perform at their best and therefore be most productive. An organization’s performance is only as good as the performance of its individual members. When the employees have an attention deficit, then the organization has an attention deficit. And without razor-sharp focus and attention to task, organizations cannot hope to compete in today’s highly distractive environment.

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