Does this sound familiar? You look at your Google Calendar and only see 2 pixels between every meeting you’re attending today. Or you’re trying to finesse a design, or conduct research on a concept, or write this blog post, but—ping! ping! ping!–there’s a relentless flood of alerts coming from email, Slack, and elsewhere.
Yet, in this modern work environment of no downtime and endless interruptions, you’re expected to excel. In thinly-sliced moments you must somehow guide yourself and your clients with intelligence, deep insights, and create award-winning strategies and designs.
According to research by UC Irvine’s Professor Gloria Mark, the average office worker is interrupted every 3 minutes. Pair that with this finding from Professor Michael Posner at the University of Oregon: when we are interrupted during a task, it takes our brains 23 minutes to return to the level of concentration we had before the interruption. It’s a wonder the working world hasn’t imploded under such untenable circumstances. And while we might be inclined to simply blame it all on digital technology, the root causes are manifold.
Johann Hari spent three years conducting hundreds of interviews with experts who have studied what Hari calls the global attention crisis. The resulting book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How To Think Deeply Again, paints a holistic picture of the problem. In it, he delves into research across a wide range of topics including how we work, sleep, eat, educate, and interact with technology and society. It’s a compelling book that balances truly jarring data with some hopeful insights from real world examples of people who won their attention back.
Why does the attention crisis matter to the creative industries?
According to Professor Earl Miller, a cognitive neuroscientist at MIT, our brains require downtime to be creative. Creativity comes from our brain having extended undistracted time to—at the subconscious level—connect various inputs we’ve received to generate something novel. This means we cannot realize our full potential, our creative brains cannot earn that title, if we’re constantly interrupted or switching between multiple tasks. On that last point, according to the research, multi-tasking is a myth. Our brains only focus on one function at a time, and the more we switch back and forth, not only are we less able to be creative, we’re far more prone to error.
What this means for creative businesses is when team members can’t devote their full attention to a task then they can’t think deeply about that task. If they aren’t able to think deeply, they risk generating shallow solutions for their clients. And if this continues for too long, those clients will go looking elsewhere for strategy, guidance, and creative work.
So, what are some things we can do that might help improve our attention in the workplace so that we can be our creative best? Here are a 7 ideas from the book and from around our office:
1: Better Sleep
Sleep allows the brain to clear itself out and make sense of everything we put into it from the day before. New ideas and memories form while we sleep. To get better sleep, lower the amount of artificial light in your home as the evening progresses. Try putting your phone away two hours before you intend to fall asleep. You may need to build up to that one over time, so start with not looking at it while in bed and progress from there. These steps allow your brain to return to a more natural rhythm and you’ll fall asleep more easily and more deeply. Better sleep = better waking function.
2: Limit App Alerts
I’ve started doing this one recently and it’s made a huge difference: don’t allow alerts from any apps that aren’t absolutely necessary. Yes, that means turning off Slack alerts after business hours. You can do it, I believe in you! Turn off all the other alerts, too, especially social media. All of the content and heart reacts will be there for you to see later.
3: Limit Outside Contact While Working
We all love hearing from our partner and our friends during the day. It helps us feel connected, but it’s also a major distraction. I recently asked my girlfriend and others who usually text me during the day to limit texts during work hours to time-sensitive messages. My focus has improved dramatically, and now when I see these people face to face after work, we have more to talk about. Win-win!
4: Schedule Email Time
Set aside 2 or 3 times per day that you will read and respond to emails. Knock this task out in chunks, not as each message comes in. Most messages are not as pressing as the sender thinks they are, and if something is truly urgent, they have your phone number.
5: Daily Deep Work
At Telegraph, we have Deep Work Wednesdays, when external meetings are verboten and coworker interruptions are discouraged. The goal is to allow everyone to focus on a handful of tasks that need their full attention. Some staff here, like CCO Seth Griffin, have taken the extra step of setting aside 2-hour blocks of Deep Work time almost every day. It’s okay to tell your coworkers, “Give me space so I can do my best work.”
6: Zoning Out Is Valuable (And Can Be Billable)
As research reveals, our brains need to pause to be creative. Allow your staff (or yourself) time during the day to not be grinding since downtime is often when ideas come to us. Pick up a book. Go for a stroll. Just stare across the room. Lightning may strike. Or maybe your brain will simply be refreshed enough to generate that lightning itself. Telegraph Designer Savvy Meek has begun turning to a doodle pad throughout the day to clear her head and reports that it helps her feel creatively recharged.
7: Advocate for Longer Deadlines
This one’s radical, I know, but hear me out (and then convince your clients to follow along). Clients want the best from us, and we want to give them our best. Creating great work often requires long stretches of attention. Giving a project a longer lead time begets more attention devoted to the work begets better creative results begets fewer revisions or less pushback from the client. Conversely, an arbitrarily short deadline begets rushed work begets more rounds of revisions than anyone budgeted for. The former makes everyone happy. The latter frustrates all involved.
Mr. Hari states that Stolen Focus is not a self-help book, that there are no easy answers, and that he still struggles with the attention problem himself. I believe, though, that the research data it presents and the real world examples of how individuals and companies have won their attention and productivity back are a valuable resource and can inspire solutions of our own. In the creative field, we have no tool more valuable than our minds, and the better we can understand how to protect and optimize the abilities of this most precious resource, the better our work and our lives will be.