Finding it hard to focus? You’re not alone

Are our attention spans shortening and, if so, what are the implications for work?

Always On Culture

How can we tackle the always on culture?

Are you finding it hard to pay attention to anything? What about your kids? There has been a lot of focus on the impact of social media and games etc on children’s attention spans for some years, but what about their parents?

The constant demand for instant replies to everything, the frequent addition of tasks and the constant logistics of parents make it often hard to pay attention to the important stuff, such as having conversations.

I’ve just been in a meeting which lasted two hours. I could feel my attention waning after the first 20 minutes and by the last half hour I was feeling positively hostile as I knew how much other stuff I had to get done and how much stuff I had to remember. I spent most of the meeting making lists of everything I had to remember. It’s rare that there is any down time at all these days just to think.

Some days I feel like I’ve taken multi-tasking to extreme sports levels. It’s exhausting, but it seems to be the only way to extend the day.

Yet the downside is that we may seem disengaged, perhaps more so with the people who are the most important. My kids sometimes accuse me of ‘filtering’ – a process of them talking to me and me nodding blankly while thinking about something else. I often forget the one thing that my partner has asked me to get from the supermarket because 100 different thoughts and messages have crowded my mind before I get there and as I get older my short-term memory is getting shorter and shorter.

There’s also the mental health impact of this lack of proper engagement with others as well as the burnout impact. We know that time for reflection and deep conversation is vital for our wellbeing.

So an event this week that discussed the need for a culture of attention was welcome. Organised by Jesus College, Cambridge’s Intellectual Forum it focused on digital well-being and the future of work – in particular the impact of digital technologies on wellbeing –  and called for a greater understanding of the role of attention in wellbeing.

The discussion centred on the different ways we can increase the quality of our attention spans at work, covering everything from office design and time to disconnect to overwork and the blurring of lines between work and ‘life’. Speakers talked about the threat of even more digital overload as Generative AI is able to turn out more and more personalised, targeted content that will take up our time.

One way of combatting it is to understand better our own attention rhythms, ie when we are most able to get absorbed in deeper work and what kind of environment helps to encourage that. This may be okay for individual work, but it’s more complex if you are collaborating on a team project. As flexibility expert Andy Lake would argue, it is also about understanding the nature of the tasks your job involves, what is required of you individually and as part of the team and how you work best on whatever the tasks are.

There are also, of course, apps that individuals can use to hone their attention spans and turning off notifications and the constant pinging throughout the day can at least quieten some of the distraction, the speakers at the forum said it shouldn’t only be on individuals to address the problem.  We need to take the issue more seriously, they said, not only because it affects our wellbeing but because it also affects our productivity and creativity. It is quality that matters more than quantity. The speakers spoke too about things like fidget toys, used sometimes by neurodivergent people to hone their focus on tasks. Could these have a wider application?

Are there things that technology can do that help us to pay attention, rather than distract us? How much autonomy do we have? These are important questions and ones that we will need to grapple with increasingly if we are to ensure the future of work is something humans can thrive in.



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