Our brains are pretty amazing, all things considered. When we are able to create the right environment around us and focus our attention on the thing in hand, we can do great things. But we can only really do one thing at a time – multi tasking really isn’t a thing. It might be a conversation, a meeting, a presentation, a document, a delicate physical task such as a surgeon might perform, or getting the painting we are doing or the carpentry joint we are cutting out just right – to do it well, and to enjoy the experience of it and give of our best to it, we need to be focussed on it, to the exclusion of other things.
Notice what happens in a meeting when it goes from people speaking in turn to several voices competing for the same airspace – the meeting, and with it our focus, quickly disintegrates. Or when we are concentrating on a task and we get interrupted by something or someone demanding our attention. Research suggests that the average person, when interrupted from a focussed activity will take 15 minutes to get back to that same level of focus and attention. That interruption has clearly had a big impact on the effectiveness and efficiency of the person in question, and sometimes, particularly if the task in hand is urgent or important, this will cause stress.
Stress of course quickly feeds on itself – the cognitive overload of thinking that we need to be doing multiple things at the same time fuels the feelings of stress, triggers our amygdala so that our brain function is impaired and our behaviours then tend to be erratic and ineffective which circles back to and exacerbates the thoughts and feelings, and so we spiral.
I was coaching someone some time ago over Zoom – not my preferred medium for coaching but it was during lockdown so we couldn’t meet face to face. Coaching is most effective when coach and coachee are truly present and have their attention fully focussed on the conversation in hand, and on the coachee in the case of the coach. I noticed very quickly that every 30 seconds or so there was a ping from my coachee’s computer. I asked about it and she told me that it was alerts for incoming emails and a host of other e-communication platforms her employer used. I remarked that it seemed quite distracting – yes was the reply – and asked whether she could turn them off – and the answer was no, her employer had disabled her ability to turn off the alerts. Which means that every 30 seconds throughout her working day, and quite probably well beyond her working day, her train of thought, her focus, was being hijacked. I know some people would be able to manage that but for a lot of people it will be akin to mental torture – or at least destructive of their ability to get stuff done, which, at the end of the day, is what most of us are paid to do.
Harking back, as only someone of a certain age is wont to do, I remember my first office and desk. I had an office of my own with a door. There was a single phone to which only the switchboard, my secretary and my wife had the direct line – and certainly no mobile phone. There was no computer. Distractions, therefore, were few and mostly within my control. I could choose where I focussed my attention and I could indicate to the outside world (by closing that door and asking my secretary to hold my calls) when I needed to be focussed and not disturbed, unless of course it was something urgent.
Technology has given us wonderful opportunities to be connected, to communicate at speed and with ease, it has revolutionised the way we work, and through social media and the internet more generally given us infinite and wondrous opportunities to explore, to comment, to be liked, get angry and so on. It is at one and the same time both an extraordinary tool and also a constant and sometimes overwhelming drain on our attention and focus –and with its myriad demands a source of stress.
At its best it is an ever increasing range of options as to where we focus our attention at any given time – in any moment of our respective days. To use it wisely, we must continue to exercise that choice for ourselves, to be deliberate about where our precious and finite focus is directed at any given time.
And, of course, we are all different. My daughter streams for part of her living, and as a result her numerous social media feeds need her regular attention. That’s not me, or most people I know. Someone in a call centre will need to be constantly monitoring the calls that come in and responding as quickly as possible. Again, not me or most people I know, despite how we sometimes seem to behave. A journalist will need to be on top of the latest breaking news minute by minute – you guessed it, again not me or most people I know. We may want to give our focus to social media, emails, the news, from time to time, even on a regular basis, but we can be deliberate and mindful about how and when we exercise that choice.
And just as we can all help ourselves to manage our stress and maximise our focus and efficiency by exercising that choice mindfully and deliberately, so we can help by building workplaces and work cultures that empower others to do the same (the ability to work offline from time to time, or at least to turn off alerts, would be a start). And we can be more mindful about our behaviours and their impact on other people so as to allow this to happen. We would all be more effective and less stressed if we made this happen.
While writing this I kept thinking about an analogy with Batman but I haven’t managed to weave it in, so here it is on its own at the end. As any Batfan knows, for most of his life Bruce Wayne does normal stuff and seems relatively calm and effective running Wayne Enterprises, but every now and then the good folk of Gotham City shine a searchlight into the sky projecting the image of a bat which is our hero’s prompt to don the Bat suit, jump into the Batmobile and save humanity from the latest evil it is exacting upon itself. For a short while things are pretty stressful and then good triumphs over evil and Bruce can calm down again. He couldn’t do that all the time, and really struggles when there are multiple demands upon him. The people of Gotham are mindful enough to use the searchlight sparingly.
I think my point was that too many of us feel that searchlight being shone on a semi continuous basis with the resultant need to jump into heroic saving of our little parts of the world at every moment. For most of us ordinary folk, super heroes of course though we are, things can usually wait a little. We can be mindful and deliberate in exercising our choice about how we focus our attention. And we could all help each other by using our e-comms searchlights more mindfully.
The Mindful Business Charter is a cross business initative helping organisations and their people create more mindful working practices and cultures, enabling healthier and more effective ways of working. byrne·dean is proud to be a signatory and to have supported the Charter through its early years of development. Richard now splits his working time between byrne·dean and The Mindful Business Charter. For more information about the Charter look at www.mindfulbusinesscharter.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org