Can I Have Your Attention, Please?

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

What are the essential skills in the 21st century? A quick internet search suggests that these are skill sets that enable success in a globalized and technological world. As such, we can think of soft skills, such as communication, teamwork, and emotional intelligence, which all help to manage an increasingly collaborative and diverse work environment. Then there are intrapersonal cognitive skills, such as critical thinking and creativity, which are needed to navigate the constantly growing flow of information, and to explore and exploit new opportunities. For example, as discussed in one of my recent blog posts, generative AI is disrupting our ways of working that is here to stay and organizations that will deploy the resulting innovations will get ahead of others. Finally, and naturally, the current job market requires technology skills and digital literacy.

This skill set indeed seems very relevant, adequate, and comprehensive. Yet, after finishing the latest book on my reading list, I wonder if one essential skill is not only missing from but is also crucial for the other skills to be applied well. I am talking about attention skills and our ability to focus.

A new bestseller by the British journalist Johann Hari, called Stolen Focus, highlights an increasing problem we all seem to face, namely the collective collapse of our ability to pay attention. I believe this problem does not need much substantiation, as a simple reflection on the ways we do things and fail at doing things already offers compelling evidence. How long do you manage to stay focused on a single task without feeling an urge to do something else, like checking your Twitter, e-mails or recently arrived phone notifications? How long can you calmly focus on a single task without being interrupted by an incoming call, e-mail, or colleague request? When was the last time you felt immersed in a conversation with your spouse, friend, or children without at least one of the parties ‘checking-out’, even if just for a moment, to consult their phone or smart watch? Is your capacity to direct your full attention to reading an article or a book, or watch a film the same as it was a decade ago? How easy is it to be present and listen to another person for a sustained period? Can you manage the wait in the grocery store queue by just standing there doing nothing? Do you still go for a walk without any informational gadgets?

When reading Johann’s description of our attentional problems, I couldn’t help but agree that we are indeed getting worse at paying focused attention to a single task while avoiding distractions, and that we are losing our capacity to just being and ‘doing nothing’ without urging for constant stimulation and input from our gadgets. It was quite comforting to come across Johann’s main argument that it is not each one of us, who is losing their ability to focus due to a lack of willpower, but rather, that the focus is being stolen from us. More specifically, Johann outlines several systemic forces and problems, which both separately and in conjunction make proper focus increasingly rare. The so-called surveillance capitalism is certainly one of the major forces behind social media being purposefully designed to be addictive. In other words, if you have lost many minutes or hours of your day to scrolling through your social media feeds today, it is not (just) your personal failing, as many talented and committed people worked numerous hours on figuring out the best ways to keep you hooked to the screen. What is more, we are living in a world of complete information overload, increasing sleep deprivation, bad diet, and constant stress. But in order to pay attention well and focus on something for a sustained period of time, our brains need exactly the opposite: a good rest, proper nutrition, mental well-being, manageable workload, and some slack time to let the mind wander.

Think about it this way: Technological development is making our lives easier in many ways—we can shop online, get products delivered to our doorsteps, cooking devices are constantly improving for preparing food, doing your laundry is ever more efficient, and majority of us do not spend time anymore manually washing the dishes… What do we do with all this freed up time now? Do we feel we have more free time? Oliver Burkeman, the author of the book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (which I also highly recommend), argues that all this technological progress does make our lives more comfortable on one hand, but it also just increases the pace of our lives and creates more demands and hence time pressures. Indeed, if you do not have to spend hours in the kitchen preparing the meal anymore, you should be able to get more things done in your day… and it goes without saying that as you cook your pasta, you may as well be involved in a ZOOM call, listen to a podcast, or have several simultaneous conversations in a Facebook chat…

We live in the most progressive time of human history. We also live in the most distracted time of human history. As Johann Hari, Oliver Burkeman, Cal Newport and several other prominent writers and thinkers suggest, there are things that we can individually do to manage our time and attention better, to train and nudge our brains to focus more, and to design our surroundings in ways that support our ability to live less distracted lives. Yet, as Johann Hari convincingly argues, we may also need systemic changes and a collective rebellion against an ongoing theft of our attention.

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