In the past, I served on a board with someone that was a lawyer and partner in a Halifax based firm. He was a litigator that had earned the Q.C. or Queen’s Council designation which is one of the highest honors one can receive in the profession. During one of our board weekends he told me about a high profile case he had been working on. He was representing a major oil and gas company and had been flying almost weekly between the UK and Canada. During his work on the case he had spent some time with the CEO of the firm he was representing. He noted that there was a distinct difference between the top of the corporate food chain and the rest of us. Industry titans don’t carry phones. They aren’t checking things every few seconds. His suggestion was that a mark of power was that the powerful were free from dependence on devices. The inference was that this may be because they had an army of assistants looking after these things for them. I didn’t doubt he was right, but the message I took away was that it wasn’t just a perk of their current position but likely something they cultivated earlier in their careers. I believed the skill came before the position. It was a contributor to their corporate climb. I assumed earlier steps in their careers would have been marked by diligence in deleting distractions. A reason for their ascension was their ability to apply the full energy of their attention on meaningful tasks.
Emails may represent an ongoing distraction challenge we face daily in our work lives. Here’s some “fun” facts about email. In 2020, over 300 billion emails were sent and received. There’s over 4 billion email users worldwide. Google’s Gmail account seems to be the most popular email service boasting about 45% of the world’s email accounts. The average worker is receiving well over 100 emails each day while sending 40 work related emails daily. We’re spending a significant part of our day managing messages. For many of us, it’s the number one time taker on our schedules overshadowing even the seemingly never ending time spent in meetings. Surveys suggest we’re spending over 30% (or more than 15 hours) of our work week managing our inboxes. How much time are you spending in your inbox? Does it sometimes feel like you’ll never be able to crawl out? Over half of us suffer from an ever-growing inbox. Inbox Zero seems to be a hopeless goal. What do you dread most about returning to your desk after a vacation? What does the start of your typical day look like? Do you scan your inbox looking for something to which to respond? Do you sit and sigh when seeing that the inbox has grown since when you left work yesterday? Are you able to ignore your inbox and get started on the important tasks? If you’re like most of us, you’re letting email have too much of a say over how you’re spending your work day.
Continuous Partial Attention (CPA) is a term coined by technology writer and consultant Linda Stone. She introduced this idea back in 1998. CPA is different from multi-tasking in that it is not an attempt to do but more to survey. CPA represents our tendency to constantly scan across media platforms looking for the next, best thing upon which to concentrate. It is a stressful state that reduces reflection and crushes careful consideration. It’s looking for the next shiny object. It is a casual scanning waiting for our attention to be captured. In a blog post, productivity expert, Tiago Forte, notes “lowering our reactivity is an end in itself, because anything that forces you to react controls you.” When we’re scanning, we’re not doing. Nor are we in charge. In The Procrastination Equation Piers Steel writes about a study done by Microsoft where its workers’ activities were monitored. The study found that after an email interruption it took fifteen minutes for workers to refocus on the task they had previously been working on. Steel writes, “Combine this with the finding that information workers check their e-mail accounts over fifty times a day, over and above the seventy-seven times they text message, and theoretically no work should ever get done.” In The 3 Alarms, Eric Partaker cites research suggesting that 28% of the average work day is lost to switching tasks. He notes that if we “extrapolate these consequences,” that’s 13 weeks a year that’s lost or an entire quarter wasted.
Consider your mailbox at home for a moment. How often do you check it compared to your email inbox? Nowadays, we’re likely checking our post mailbox once per day or even much less. After all, the mailman comes at most once daily. How ridiculous would we look if we went to the mailbox multiple times a day while opening it pulling out a handful of materials to look at then putting them back in and walking away? Continuously opening and shuffling through contents is an incredibly inefficient process that kills hours of our workday. It is this scanning and flitting from task to task that leaders are trying to avoid. They work very hard to control their schedules in order to minimize distractions. They aren’t being run by their inbox and phone notifications. They are proactively pursuing purposeful progress.
Leaders are responsible for making consequential decisions. At the heart of their skill set is the ability to concentrate deeply on complicated issues. As Daniel Goleman writes in Focus, “Deep thinking demands sustaining a focused mind. The more distracted we are, the more shallow our reflections; likewise, the shorter our reflections, the more trivial they are likely to be.” Multi-tasking is a myth. Commit to OTAAT. One Thing At a Time. Embrace the Zen Mantra of “Sit, sit. Walk, walk. Don’t wobble.” When we try to do more than one thing, we are more likely to stumble and then fumble. The size of our inboxes doesn’t reflect our importance. Being busy doesn’t equate to being effective. In fact, like my lawyer friend pointed out, it may well constitute the opposite.
In The 3 Alarms, Eric Partaker writes, “How do you develop the habit of single-tasking? Start with a simple timesheet. Simply note every activity you perform throughout the day with a start time, an end time, and your total minutes. The secret here is to record literally everything. Thirteen minutes spent working on a presentation. Five minutes spent grabbing a coffee. Eleven minutes spent in your inbox. Seventeen minutes spent ‘researching’ that irresistible idea that just popped in your head. Six minutes spent answering that phone call. As you record each and every task you engage in, you’ll become more and more aware of just how often you switch tasks, as well as how often you’re switching to something rather meaningless. Over time you’ll think twice about having to record that you randomly surfed Facebook for twenty-four minutes, for example. Once you’ve developed an awareness of where your time goes, how often you switch from one task to the next, and your typical distractions, it’s time to start expanding your ability to work without interruption, and distraction-free!”
While chipping away at this article quite early one morning I noticed myself easily being pulled away. I prepare these notes in draft emails and minimized the draft in order to review my inbox several times. This was pointless as there was little likelihood of any message of importance arriving at the hour I was working. I then let my attention shift to an article I had open on a browser on the other side of my monitor. I rationalized to myself looking at the article as it was sort of related to this note’s contents. From here, I looked at my phone and read a text that came in. I then enjoyed looking out the window for a minute. I found myself in a flow of diversions. The good news is that I became aware of my attention slipping. Attuning our awareness helps see the power of controlling our environments in order to give ourselves a chance to get something productive completed.
From determining where your time is presently being spent, consider working on building back your attention span. 100 years ago, Arnold Bennett wrote How to Live on Twenty Four Hours a Day. Even then, Bennett noted the cost of not being able to control our own attention. He encouraged making time each day to do little more than train ourselves to concentrate. Bennett emphasized the importance of taking charge of ourselves. He encouraged us to be the captain of our ship by learning to control the beast of our impulses. Bennett writes, “‘My brain is my servant. I am not the play-thing of my brain.’ Let it concentrate on these statements for thirty minutes. ‘What?’ you cry. ‘Is this the way to an efficient life? Why, there’s nothing in it!’ Simple as it may appear, this is the way, and it is the only way. As for there being nothing in it, try it. I guarantee that you will fail to keep your brain concentrated on the given idea for thirty seconds—let alone thirty minutes. You will find your brain conducting itself in a manner which would be comic were it not tragic. Your first experiments will result in disheartening failure, for to exact from the brain, at will and by will, concentration on a given idea for even so short a period as half an hour is an exceedingly difficult feat—and a fatiguing! It needs perseverance. It needs a terrible obstinacy on the part of the will. That brain of yours will be hopping about all over the place, and every time it hops you must bring it back by force to its original position. You must absolutely compel it to ignore every idea except the one which you have selected for its attention. You cannot hope to triumph all at once. But you can hope to triumph. There is no royal road to the control of the brain.” Today, for most of us, thinking about paying attention to something fully for thirty minutes seems like an impossible achievement. Even thirty seconds is almost four times what we’ve regressed towards. Tim Wu writes in The Attention Merchants, “We must act, individually and collectively, to make our attention our own again, and so reclaim ownership of the very experience of living.” Our attention is our own. It’s something that we can’t let slip into the clutches of others.
On a episode of Tim Ferriss’ podcast, comedian Jerry Seinfeld offers a distinction between our brain and our minds. Seinfeld said, “You’ve got to treat your brain like a dog you just got. The mind is infinite in wisdom. The brain is a stupid, little dog that is easily trained. Do not confuse the mind with the brain. The brain is so easy to master—you just have to confine it. And it’s done through repetition and systemization.” Puppies, if left to their own devices, cause more than a little mischief. So, too, it is with our brains, left unattended, they will blindly follow whatever catches its attention. However, if we take the time to carefully train our puppies to behave properly, they can quickly become great friends.
What do successful people do? They have a plan. They create routines that serve them. They use technology to help them accomplish more and live a more fulfilled life as opposed to mindlessly being magnetized to the drag driven by others. Successful people are able to concentrate on tackling one thing at a time. They give themselves a chance by compartmentalizing their day. They know what their core functions are and they set aside specific, uninterrupted time to dedicate towards these core functions. They control their schedule. They aren’t sitting by their screens waiting for what’s next. Instead, they use discipline to move from area to area. This practice is time blocking. For example, the first hour of each morning is dedicated to preparing content for marketing. The second hour is to reach out and connect with existing customers. Then there’s a 15 minute break followed by 45 minutes of checking emails. Time blocking is where some time is dedicated to value generating activities for your role each day at a specified time which is then used for only that activity. Interruptions are minimized and time is taken to make progress on what matters. By limiting inputs we broaden the bandwidth we have available to focus on what it is we choose to pay attention to. Performers take proactive steps to, if not delete, at least deplete distractions. Consider closing doors, turn off the ringer, and reduce the number of devices in your office. Ready to go further? Reduce the number of open apps and browser tabs on your screen. In an ideal world, create two separate work environments: one where you are completely disconnected and reserved for doing the deep work of thinking and the other where you are capable of being in responsive mode. Create time blocks to attack specific activities in a concerted effort in order to be able to focus on the task at hand.
Those that can focus on one task intensely for extended periods are becoming farther and fewer between. This is where value lies. By working to develop your ability to concentrate for longer as well as control your work environment in order to block time to do in depth mental tasks are two skills that will continue to increase in value in the coming years. They are at the heart of high performance. If you want to be a boss, you’ve got to become your own boss first. As Leo Tolstoy wisely noted many years ago, “Remember that there is only one important time and it is Now. The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion.” Getting better at this puts you in rare air and is an example of being willing to do what others won’t (W2D WOW).