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Time to pay attention: the next work/life benefit?

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in HR Management,Human Resources


The average worker spends about two hours every day dealing with unnecessary interruptions, ranging from e-mails to instant messages to phone calls to visits from co-workers. Those interruptions cost businesses $590 billion a year in lost productivity.

And once someone is interrupted, research shows, it can take up to one half-hour for the person to return to what he or she was doing.

The result: Our days are a mishmash of work that’s chopped up into little pieces. We’re doing a little bit here and a little bit there on this and that—and giving none of it our full attention.

Efficiency experts once believed this sort of multitasking made us more productive. Now, they know the opposite is true. Even worse, it makes us feel less productive—and stressed out, overworked and less satisfied.

The underlying problem: People need to think deeply and to connect deeply with others. The pendulum is swinging too far in the direction of snippets and sound bites and ticking little things off our to-do lists. We have no time to think.

That leads to a lack of focus, and the research is clear about this: When we split our focus between two tasks—like checking e-mail while listening in on a conference call—we do not fully benefit from the information we receive from either. In order to fully learn and benefit from something, we need to make it our sole focus.

I’m not advocating a return to the pre-technology Dark Ages. Technology is a wonderful and important enhancement to our lives and work.

What I’m advocating is that we take time away from it to think and to focus—to pay attention to what we’re doing—on a regular basis.

In this technological age, that kind of unplugging has to be deliberate, even planned. Some organizations already are doing it. Examples:

  • A number of organizations have created “white space”—a room with no computers, phones or Internet access where employees can go to think or to brainstorm with a small group.
  • White space can also be time. Citizens Bank in New England, for example, arranges regular “workout sessions” for interdepartmental teams that physically leave the workplace for a day to solve a specific small problem. The bank did 300 of them in a year—and involved 4,000 people.
  • Some IBM departments observe “ThinkFridays,” when there are no scheduled meetings or conference calls and employees don’t answer their phones or check e-mail. Software engineers initiated the change so they could spend concentrated time on the creative work necessary to invent.

These strategies work best when they’re initiated by the employees rather than handed down as edicts by the organization—and when they’re flexible.

None of them involves shutting down the office. Employees are still working even though they’re not “wired” for a few hours or a day—and they’re working productively because they’re uninterrupted. Employees are being creative; they’re team-building; they’re figuring out how to solve problems; and they’re concentrating on one project at a time instead of starting a bunch of them and struggling to finish one.

HR professionals can apply this sort of salve at any organization. In fact, it could be the latest work/life benefit: time to pay attention.

Two tips:

  1. Enlist your organization’s leaders as role models for paying attention. Encourage them to leave their BlackBerrys behind when they attend staff meetings, so employees don’t observe managers splitting their attention between e-mail and the issues at hand.
  2. Ask employees about their daily work interruptions—in a formal survey or during informal conversations. Once people start talking about their distractions, they will be more aware of them—and perhaps more likely to stop letting them undermine their ability to pay attention.


Author: Maggie Jackson is the author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, and What’s Happening to Home? Balancing Work, Life and Refuge in the Information Age. Contact her at Maggie.Jackson@att.net.

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