In the mid-80s there was a sitcom starring Tony Danza. Danza played the part of a retired major league baseball player turned live in housekeeper for a divorced, female advertising executive. The show introduced us to Alyssa Milano as Tony’s daughter and ran for eight popular seasons. The show, “Who’s the Boss?” drew part of its appeal from displaying actress Judith Light as the figure in charge while the Italian, former sport star, alpha male was her “maid.” The role reversal was a strong counter to what was commonly seen and accepted at the time.
Just as we had preconceived notions about who could be and should be the “boss” in various settings, so, too, it is the case that we like to think that we’re in charge of our attention. We like to think that we decide what we’re looking at and how we spend our time. A survey done in recent years led by Microsoft asked young adults the following question. “When nothing is occupying my attention, the first thing I do is reach for my phone.” Almost 80% of respondents agreed with the statement. Who’s the boss? If there’s truth to this survey, it is tough to suggest that we are in charge of our devices or our own attention. We are allowing ourselves to be pulled away from the present. When you pull into the school parking lot to pick up kids after school, what’s the first thing you reach for? When you are waiting at the doctor’s or dentist’s office, what is the first thing you reach for? Is it your phone? How often do you see others walking while staring at their phone? Do you ever do this? Distraction is driving us. Unfortunately, we’re becoming passengers more often than not. Attention, whose is it? Is it yours if it can be drawn and manipulated by outside forces?
In The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, John Mark Comer writes about a study of Iphone users. This study covered people of all ages and uncovered that the average user touches their phone 2,617 times daily. DAILY. “Each user is on his or her phone for two and a half hours over seventy-six sessions.” Comer then notes a separate study which focused just on millennials which found that they were twice as active on their phones as were the average users from the Iphone study. Screens aren’t mean, but they seem to be magnetic. “This irresistible attraction to screens is leading people to feel as though they’re ceding more and more of their autonomy when it comes to deciding how they direct their attention.” Call Newport Digital Minimalism. Who’s the boss?
A media research group, eMarketer, tracks how American adults use various electronic devices. Smartphone screen time has slowly chipped away at TV time since their debut back in 2007. In 2019, eMarketer found that the average American adult spent almost three hours daily on their mobile device. All this, while still spending almost four hours a day watching TV. The number of channels, shows, and Youtube videos continues to explode. The amount that’s available to consume is orders of magnitude greater than the time we have available to watch though it seems we’re trying to keep up. We’re sinking seven hours daily of our “awake” time into these two distractions. The studies do acknowledge that some of this time will be overlapped or multi-tasking between watching TV and staring at our phones. However we slice and dice the time, it represents a massive portion of our day. All of this time is passive, mindless consumption. We’re not creating anything. We’re passing time. We’re spending 20-40% of our waking hours staring at screens that is not work related. Who’s the boss?
In our work worlds, the painful problem persists. Managing email eats away at our day. A number of studies suggest receiving, reviewing, sifting, sorting, and sending emails is the largest allocation of daily time. Email efforts can occupy from a quarter to half of our work days. In The Procrastination Equation, Piers Steel writes, “With every notifying ‘ding,’ workers instantly redirect their attention to reading the latest in an endless stream of electronic missives.” Cal Newport in Deep Work writes of a 2012 study undertaken by consulting firm McKinsey which “found that the average knowledge worker now spends more than 60 percent of the workweek engaged in electronic communication and internet searching, with close to 30 percent of a worker’s time dedicated to reading and answering e-mail alone.” Steel highlights research suggesting the average office worker checks their email over fifty times a day. Fifty times? In an eight hour workday that’s more than six times an hour. Does that seem necessary? If we are actively aware and trying to make forward progress with our efforts, is checking our email fifty times reflective of being in charge? Is checking email a sign of action or reaction? Who’s the boss? If fifty sounds like a lot and couldn’t possibly be your experience, ask yourself if you know how many times a day you check your emails. If you don’t know how many times you’re checking, if you don’t have specific times of day for when you check your emails, who’s the boss?
Some saw this trend developing before smartphones. Even a 100 years ago, we faced struggles controlling our attention. Arnold Bennett wrote in How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day, “The pity is that our brains have a way of ‘wandering,’ as it is politely called. Brain-wandering is indeed now recognised as a specific disease.” More recently in 2005, psychiatrists were coming up with a formal name for the affliction that’s ever present today. ADT or Attention Deficit Trait was used to refer to those distracted, internally anxious, and impatient due to brain overload. As a result of the input overload, those overwhelmed by ADT are unable to organize, prioritize, or get things done. In short, their personal effectiveness is compromised. Psychiatrist, Edward Hallowell notes in a Harvard Business Review article that back in 2005 he was seeing a tenfold increase in patients showing up complaining about struggles concentrating in the workplace. The deluge of distractions and constant incoming information was presenting psychological challenges. Unlike ADHD which is a biological ailment, ADT is the result of our environment. No single crisis creates the ailment. It follows from a steady build up of commitments. Workers try to keep up with constantly climbing workloads while becoming increasingly unfocused and short tempered. Who’s the boss?
As self-respecting Canadians and afficionados of hockey we likely recognize that retaliation is a greater infraction than instigating. Pushing back when provoked more often invites a penalty than the pusher. What is retaliation other than a impulsive reaction? The retaliator has ceded control to the instigator. Our reactions to our devices is just like retaliating to being poked with a hockey stick. We’ve given up on directing our own actions and are letting someone else pull us along. When we pong to the ping of our phones, we’re being drawn like mosquitos to a ultra-violet light. Our devices are driving us to being zapped. Who’s the boss? Consider the words of Tristan Harris, a former Google employee turned digital design ethicist, “Never before in history have the decisions of a handful of designers (mostly men, white, living in SF, aged 25–35) working at 3 companies had so much impact on how millions of people around the world spend their attention.” Our “decisions” are done at the design of developers.
The costs aren’t just personal discomfort and feelings of anxiety. Our organizations lose from lost productivity of inefficient efforts. Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton write in Anxiety at Work, “Research, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, found productivity decreased by as much as 40 percent when test subjects were repeatedly switching tasks.” Additionally, distracted workers are more likely to make mistakes creating other organizational costs. We’re dumber when we’re distracted. Gostick and Elton note, “A University of London study shows that workers who are distracted by incoming emails and telephone calls drop ten points on IQ scores on average.” Distractions dilute our attention. At best, we’re weaker, at worst we create problems. Moreover, our attention span appears to be dropping. We read less books, even the articles we read, we abbreviate our response proudly with TLDR for “Too Long Didn’t Read.” Tweets we think of as complete. We want the Coles notes, the bullet points, the condensed version, now. From 2000 to 2015 our attention span shrunk substantially from 12 seconds down to 8. Our ability to concentrate is now less than that of a goldfish which, apparently, can concentrate for nine seconds. These findings were supported by a separate study from the UK in 2014 which noted that our attention moves between our devices more than twenty times an hour. We’re constantly shifting from phone, to laptop, to other screen, and back. Our attention pulled while we passively sit along for the ride. Who’s the boss?
Sadly, even without the buzzing and ringing of notifications, our smart phones are so captivating that their mere presence disrupts our ability to concentrate. In this study researchers found that performance of tests requiring participant attention was worse for those where their cell phones were simply nearby than for those that had no phones with them. Who’s the Boss? Worse yet, beyond capturing our time, crushing our ability to concentrate, and doggedly distracting us, there’s the additional cost of returning to get back on task after each interruption. Steel introduces a study of Microsoft staff that found “people took an average of fifteen minutes to re-focus on their core tasks after answering an e-mail interruption.” Newport writes, “This state of fragmented attention cannot accommodate deep work, which requires long periods of uninterrupted thinking.” Our efforts are sporadic and shallow. We’re scanning and surfing from one distraction to another at the mercy of our environment. We are allowing our internal alarm bells to be rung. Mark and Bonita Thompson write in Admired, “Our primal brain is easily seduced by fight-or-flight urges, which means that anything that feels remotely like a crisis—and does not require deep thought—will be given priority.” Do you feel like a fireman chasing after small emergencies all day long at the cost of making progress on longer term, impactful projects?
If any of this sounds like something you are subject to during your work day, what can you do?
The start is taking time to honestly ask yourself how much control over your attention do you have? Are you able to admit that you’re allowing a large chunk of our days be taken by abdicating control of your attention? We can’t begin to search for solutions to problems we don’t realize we have. Bennett reminds us, “without the power to concentrate—that is to say, without the power to dictate to the brain its task and to ensure obedience—true life is impossible. Mind control is the first element of a full existence.” Then we can contrast where we are against those that get things done. There seems to be an inverse relationship between responsibility and reactivity. Those with increasing levels of responsibility demonstrate less reactivity. Those with responsibility are in charge of their concentration. They aren’t reacting to the whims and pulls of the outside world. Gostick and Elton write, “One of the traits we’ve noted in high-performing people is their remarkable ability to reduce distractions and calmly concentrate on one subject at a time.” Pilots, surgeons, lawyers in court, creators, high performance athletes, and business executives are acting purposefully. How do the best behave? What kind of professional would you want working on your behalf? They aren’t doing their jobs while checking their phones. Most of these professions wouldn’t have their phones anywhere near them while working. Nor would they be distracted by a computer screen with incoming emails. They are in charge and focused on their core responsibilities. They carefully construct their environments in order to give themselves the best possible chance at doing their jobs well. Cal Newport writes, “The ubiquity of deep work among influential individuals is important to emphasize because it stands in sharp contrast to the behavior of most modern knowledge workers—a group that’s rapidly forgetting the value of going deep.”
In Leadership and War, Andrew Roberts notes an observation made about Winston Churchill, “of that great man concentration was one of the keys to his character. It was not always obvious, but he never really thought of anything else but the job in hand.” Those that accomplish great things have the ability to focus deeply for extended periods of time. Distractions are the devil and focus is your friend. Poet Mary Oliver observed, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” Our focus is our force. It is how we can make an impact. John Mark Comer writes, “What you give your attention to is the person you become… In the end, your life is no more than the sum of what you gave your attention to.” Desiring to defeat distractions while improving our ability to focus is a worthwhile goal for all of us to strive towards. In a subsequent article we’ll offer some tips that will give us a chance to regain a grip on our attention.