Refining Your Attention Amid a World of Distractions
"People are saying ‘data is the new oil,’ but I [believe] that attention is the new oil. Data is plentiful. Attention is scarce, and we’ll never get more of it. Thinking about how we focus that correctly, I think, is one of our most significant opportunities." So said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in a recent MIT Sloan article about the future of work.
That struck a chord with me. Attention, like oil, is a finite commodity, meaning we need to be purposeful about how we direct it. This is especially important in today’s distributed and virtual work environment, where attention is also the “oil” that keeps us productive.
Navigating the Fast-Moving Flow of Communication
Distributed work has created both opportunities and challenges. It has humanized work, fostered more empathy among colleagues, empowered people with greater flexibility, and changed organizations’ views about the feasibility of remote work.
But it has also thrust workers into environments with more tasks competing for their attention. In addition to activity within their homes, remote workers must deal with more emails, chats, notifications and meetings. One recent global study by Harvard Business School found that employees sent 5.2% more emails and included 2.9% more recipients while attending 13% more meetings while working from home last year.
Further, these contacts are more likely to happen outside of traditional working hours. The study found employees sent about 8% more emails outside of normal business hours and that the average workday grew by 8.2%, or 48.5 minutes. Microsoft’s analysis of Teams activity found a 69% increase in chats per person after hours. When this happens, tasks that require concentration get pushed further into our personal time. Case in point: I’m writing this article on a Sunday.
We need to harness the fast-moving flow of communication rather than being engulfed by it. What follows are some tangible ideas for keeping our attention focused so our productivity remains high.
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Embrace Time Management
With more tasks competing for our attention, we must be prepared to exert more discipline over our work schedule.
- Identify the one or two most important assignments you need to achieve during the day and make sure you finish those before addressing others. Prioritizing activities that will have the greatest impact has the added benefit of making it a habit to think about the value you create. And not insignificantly, being able to cross important tasks off your to-do list provides an emotional boost.
- Focus wholeheartedly on completing a single task rather than trying to multitask and be everywhere at one time. You should be mindful of what’s important and complete a particular task before moving on to the next one.
- Schedule intentional breaks from your computer screen. Block time on your calendar to disconnect, have lunch, go for a walk, or engage in some other activity that clears your mind.
- Similarly, block time for work that requires concentration, such as reading, writing or analysis. Experts on deep work report that when you are able to focus, the amount of work you can produce in an hour is much higher.
- Don’t be afraid to take unscheduled breaks. They can be especially beneficial right before a big meeting or before starting on a task that requires deep focus.
- Bundle activities, especially those that can address both work and personal needs. I’ve had colleagues call in by phone while taking a walk when a meeting doesn’t require screen presence.
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Having boundaries is important to wellbeing in all facets of life, and it is acceptable to have them at work — especially now. According to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index report, one-third of remote workers feel the lack of separation between work and life is negatively impacting their wellbeing. When wellbeing suffers, so do attention and productivity.
- Define your needs and boundaries. Start by not taking meetings after a particular time of day and/or during your lunch hour. Block time on your calendar so that it reflects the day you want to have, and make sure colleagues are aware of your needs.
- Check email less frequently. Most people don’t expect an immediate response, and the act of constantly looking at and responding to new email takes your focus away from something else. So set a new goal — perhaps you will check email once every hour or two hours per day — and turn off notifications that tempt you to look more often. Let team members know how to contact you if something is urgent.
- Embrace asynchronous communication. It’s OK not to respond to most items immediately and to instead do so at a time that works for you. This helps enable effective communication across time zones and maintain a culture of focused work.
- Lead by example. If you’re sending emails late in the evening or all day on weekends, you may be telling your team that you expect the same from them. Instead, consider email rules that hold messages in the outbox for a specified time after you click “send.” Demonstrate that it is acceptable to “turn off” at certain times.
- Recognize your colleagues’ boundaries — and that those may be different than yours. For example, working parents may have to assist with e-learning at points during the day and shift some work to evenings or weekends.
- Try to adopt a “results-only” management mindset that focuses on getting work done rather than the idea of a fixed workday.
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Rethink Your Approach to Meetings
Poorly organized and managed meetings are hardly a new problem. They cost US businesses nearly $400 billion in 2019 — and that was before COVID-19. Virtual work amplifies bad meeting habits and adds new challenges, notably the fatigue of being in back-to-back-to-back Zoom or other video meetings that can sap our energy, attention and ability to focus.
- Agree only to meetings that generate real value. Don’t be afraid to decline unimportant meetings that interfere with time set aside for focused work or meetings merely for the purpose of communicating information. Suggest email or chat messages as alternatives.
- Think critically about who needs to be at a meeting and invite only those with a core role. Use other media to keep additional team members involved.
- Set limits on the length of meetings and have an agenda to keep to the allotted time.
- Designate a meeting-free day or half day each week to allow time for tasks that require focus.
- Break up long blocks of video time. Being “on display” for long periods is tiring. Allow yourself and others a chance to move between meetings. For example, schedule meetings for 25 minutes rather than 30 or build breaks into longer meetings. If video is not essential, give people the option of switching off the camera.
- Try to not multi-task during a meeting and minimize other apps and browser tabs on your computer screen to focus on the discussion.
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Make Full Use of Digital Workplace and Communication Technology
Today’s workplace tools have valuable but often underused productivity features. For example, one of my teams discovered how to build a form in Microsoft Teams that allows members to provide information for their daily meeting. Instead of having each team member present accomplishments, next steps, roadblocks and requests during a call, we read the notes (faster than if spoken) and use the time instead to focus on more valuable discussion.
- Leverage platform productivity tools or other apps, such as Apple Shortcuts. An AI-powered personal productivity assistant, such as Microsoft 365’s Cortana, can offer suggestions for blocking time, provide a summary of upcoming meetings, and find documents you will need.
- Embrace low-code application platforms such as Microsoft Power Apps that are part of Microsoft’s broader Power Platform; Mendix Platform; and Salesforce Platform. These platforms can help automate manual processes, rapidly build business applications and boost productivity, ultimately accelerating delivery of business apps that historically take longer to release and cost more money. Use these platforms for some of the use cases involving HR onboarding, approvals, service requests, sales forecasting, field inspections, task auditing, patient care plan tracking, and return to workplace, among many others.
- Adopt a multi-channel, highly personalized and integrated intranet. Unlike traditional intranets, modern intranets are not just a place to access HR policies and share static documents. A modern intranet solution, such as Beezy, offers a card-based news feed that helps discover new people and content, follow up on tasks and actions based on your projects, your interests, and your network connections, and recover data and conversations that you participated in previously and may need access to later.
- Customize notifications on your desktop and smartphone. For example, Microsoft Teams allows you to mute conversations or threads on specific topics or restrict notifications by changing your status.
- Organize email in your mailbox when you first review and read it. For example, set up “have read” and “for action” folders, and move each new email to one of those. Keep the number of folders small, though, because too many folders can add rather than eliminate work. Use the search feature to find past emails.
- Use auto-responders, which continue to become more sophisticated. For example, Outlook now allows different messages for people within and outside of the organization. This is a great way to redirect people to social tools and/or set expectations around your response.
- Consider creating a short video to convey something that is too complex for email or chat but not worth a meeting.
Although the arrival of vaccines offers hope for an eventual return to “normal,” the transition back to the office will be a long one — and many, like Gartner, predict hybrid work is here to stay. We’ve now had time to acclimate to this environment and consider what it takes to be productive in it. The beginning of this new, and hopefully more positive, year is a good time to reflect on what we’ve learned and what we can do better to protect our most valuable productivity resource — our attention.
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About the Author
Kaumil Dalal is a Senior Partner in West Monroe’s Product Engineering practice and a national leader focused on delivering world class, impactful industry-leading digital products. He partners with organizations to establish strategy and deliver tailored experiences to enable employee and customer experiences, and power intelligent, adaptive, and hybrid digital workplaces.