The death of attention: 4 ways leaders can help teams focus

Email, group chat, texts: Your team gets interrupted constantly – and stressed out. Consider four ideas to help people focus on solving the problems that matter
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How long will it be until you are interrupted reading this article? Six minutes, on average. That means that I have about ten more paragraphs before you get disrupted by the next ping from a text, group chat, or email.

How long does it take you to solve a complex problem? Well, that depends on the problem, but probably more than six minutes.

“Time is the scarcest resource, and unless it is managed, nothing else can be managed,” wrote Peter Drucker in 1967. Fifty years later, I’d argue that attention is the scarcest resource, and we need to start managing it so our teams can perform effectively.

In the last 50 years, computing power has moved from mainframes to a PC on every desk and now to a smartphone (or two) in every pocket. With reduced budgets, tighter timeframes, and a war for talent, it’s more important than ever for you, as the CIO, to keep your team focused on the project. But with smartphones distracting your team’s attention, it’s also harder than ever to do that.

Leader’s choice: Instant response or long-term value

What do you value from your team – instant response or long-term output? You need to choose, because you can’t have both at the same time. An instant response has its reward: The team is seen as customer-focused by dealing with customers’ and stakeholders’ requests quickly. The downside is that this is a multi-tasking mode where they are reacting rapidly with limited time to think. It leads to a cycle of reduced attention, heightened stress levels, and declining motivation.

[ How strong are your soft skills? Read also: Emotional intelligence test: 5 self-evaluation tools for leaders. ]

For IT project work, the opposite of multitasking is often necessary. Single-tasking in uninterrupted time slots of about 25 to 50 minutes (the length of most people’s attention span) is needed. During this time, the brain can focus and go into deep work mode, where it is better for problem-solving, creativity, and managing complex issues.

Here are four ideas to get your team focused on the value-added work:

1. Change yourself to change the culture

Team focus takes more than just asking people to turn off their notifications (though that will help a little). It’s about realigning the culture to value long-term output over instant response.

Your actions will speak louder than your words. One study showed that if the team leader multitasks during meetings – taking calls, answering emails, and checking notifications – then his/her team will do the same. Start to change your team’s culture by being the role model and focusing on your meeting during the meeting time. You may also find that you can shorten the duration of meetings by about 15 minutes for every hour.

[ Read also: 4 contrarian tips to run better meetings. ]

2. Set up zones of concentration

Some companies have established meeting and email blackout times when people can concentrate on projects. As much as 80 percent of available time at work is lost to meetings and emails, a figure that is undoubtedly compounded by collaboration across complex organizations. By setting aside a day or days when no emails and/or meetings are allowed, the team not only has time to focus on “real work,” but it gets a commitment that progress on projects is valued above instant responses.

3. Give the motivational buzz

Keeping people’s attention is easier when they are motivated by what they are doing. Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile studied what motivated 200 engineering and creative people working on product development projects. She found people were motivated when they made progress solving a problem or felt they’d made progress toward a goal. This takes attention, and time without being interrupted every six minutes.

Also, make sure to celebrate the progress toward the big goal. Instead of focusing on what still needs to be done in project planning reviews, spend time looking at what has already been achieved.

4. Focus on the important goals

In complex matrix organizations, there are multiple projects, competing priorities, and often, too many bosses. If people are under pressure to split their attention between multiple unrelated tasks, it causes stress. They feel that they are working hard, but because their time is spread too thin across multiple projects, they are not seeing any progress. The leadership role is to set a limited number of goals and help clear away the “noise” so people can focus on these.

If you have managed to read to the end of this article, congratulations! You have already developed a way of working that is more focused. Creating the opportunity for people in your organization to have time, space, and motivation to focus on strategically important goals proves key to success in a world where attention is the scarcest resource.

[ Want to create a sense of urgency in your organization? Take 5 quick steps with our Fast Start Guide: Creating a sense of urgency, with John Kotter. ]

Jane is an organisational psychologist and is the best-selling author of "Focus in the Age of Distraction."