Yogi Warrior: Attention Revolution!

Workplace Mindfulness

Work life has changed radically over the past few decades. We now have more distractions than ever, such as open plan work spaces, mobile phones, tablets, emails, and texts, which can all place constant demands on our attention.

We could all agree that the quality of our life is directly connected with where our attention is placed. If we find ourselves paying attention to thoughts or activities that don’t serve us well we will soon experience the negative repercussions. From this we can come to reflect that the ability to manage our attention and the quality of our attention is the key to success not only in the workplace but also in life.

Let’s face it, our ability to pay attention is under siege, and if we’re honest we may have never been taught how to pay attention. We may have had it said or screamed to us once or maybe twice while sitting in school lessons, but no one ever explained how to do it. Paying attention for sustained periods of time is a skill which we can master through practice and the quality of patience.

How big is this problem? Researchers studying the minds natural tendency to wander calculated that on average the mind wanders 46.9% of the time, and the rest of the time the mind is at task, whatever that task may be. From a human resources perspective there is a lot of potential to be developed. Even if there were just a small increase in an individual’s capacity to pay attention there would be a significant improvement in many aspects of work and daily life.

Researchers have also found that the brain has a default way of reacting to the relentless flow of distractions by trying to attend to it all at the same time. It defaults to what we have become to know as multitasking. This is where we believe we can pay attention to more than one thing at a time. For instance we think we can engage in a conversation with a friend while texting, or even driving while talking on the phone. But from a neurological perspective, we’re not capable of focusing attention on two things at the same time. We are capable of doing many activities without paying attention, that is, without conscious thought.

When we are multitasking, what we are really doing is shift-tasking. This is the ability to shift attention rapidly between two or more things. For example, while engaging in a conversation and texting, for a second we’re aware of the person talking and listening to what they are saying, and the next second we are aware of what we are texting on the phone. Sometimes we can switch so quickly from one to the other we have the illusion we are able to pay attention to them both at the same time, but in actuality, we are not. The reality is, as amazing and powerful as our brains are, we’re not capable of focusing our attention on two things at the same time.

 Studies have shown that multitasking lowers people’s job satisfaction, damages personal relationships, adversely effects memory and negatively impacts health (1). Many studies have also shown that multitasking reduces effectiveness because it lakes longer to complete tasks and leads to more mistakes. This is because when we shift our attention from one task to another it takes time to make that shift back again. That time can be from a little as a couple of seconds to several minutes depending on the complexity of the task. Guess what!

Shift-tasking saps our mental energy and taxes our productivity

 So if multitasking is not such an effective way to use our brains then why do so many of us continue to do it? Because it’s addictive, very addictive. Shifting back and forth between tasks often feels exciting, exhilarating, even though it is physically draining and stressful (2). Researchers at Harvard University discovered that multitasking provides a dopamine injection to the brain (3). Dopamine is a naturally produced neurotransmitter in the brain that is directly linked to addiction. When this is released in the brain it provides a sense of enjoyment and gratification. Because of this instant gratification the brain is constantly looking for it’s next dopamine kick and wants it quickly – and easily achieved tasks like emailing, replying to texts can do the trick. As it turns out multitasking actually trains our brains to become more distracted.

In our next blog on the Attention Revolution we will look at ways in which we can retrain our brains to become less distracted and more focused at work and at play.

In the meantime…

This blog is inspired by the work of Rasmus Hougaard

  • Bawden & L.Robinson (2009) “The Dark Side of information: Overload, Anxiety and Other Paradoxes and Pathologies” Journal of Information Science, Vol. 25 No.2:180-191
  • S, Shellenbarger(2003), “New Studies Show Pitfalls of Doing Too Much at Once,” The Wall Street Journal.
  • M. Hallowell and J.J> Ratey (2006) Delivered from Distraction-Getting the most out of Life with Attention Deficit Disorder