What's the longest you've gone without checking email during the past month? How many times a day do you interrupt what you're doing to search Google, or update Facebook, or check stock prices, or buy something online, or skim the headlines?
We all know our attention is under siege. What we underestimate is our capacity to collect it, and the costs if we don't.
As any experienced meditator knows, the mind has a mind of its own. Left free to wander, that's just what it will do. When we manage the infinite demands on our attention by trying to juggle them all, we literally weaken our capacity for absorbed focus.
Not long ago, I found myself talking to a group of two dozen partners at an accounting firm about the demands of their workdays.
How many of you, I asked, check and answer emails while you're on conference calls? Nearly all of them raised their hands.
"Here's the thing," one of them said. "I don't need to hear every word. I get the gist."
By "gist" this partner meant the key points--the headlines. But when we settle for the gist - when we split our attention -- we lose access to nuance, subtlety, texture, complexity, detail, and ultimately, depth.
The same is true when we communicate mostly in texts and tweets, and get our news in discontinuous bits and bytes.
Consider these primary symptoms of the disorder known as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD):
Often has difficulty in sustaining attention in tasks
Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly
Often has difficulty organizing tasks and activities
Often avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort
Is often easily distracted by extraneous stimuli
Do you know anyone who doesn't manifest some, even most of these traits? Lamenting the number of emails we receive each day has become a covert way of indicating how important we are, and how urgently busy.
But what is the cost?
Way back in 1971, Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon saw the tsunami coming. "What information consumes is rather obvious," he wrote. "It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention."
The consequence is that we're consuming less and less of more and more. We want a little of everything, but not too much of anything. But the ethic of more, bigger, faster generates value that is narrow, shallow and short-term.
Make no mistake: there's something seductive and even addictive about the instant gratification that tweeting and texting and all the other new technologies facilitate.
But there is also a profound difference between pleasure and satisfaction. We can derive pleasure without much effort - a martini or a cheeseburger can do the trick -- but pleasure doesn't last very long or run very deep.
Satisfaction requires a more significant investment of effort - often to the point of discomfort -- but the payoff is deeper and more enduring.
"To be busy and to be connected is to feel alive," the former Microsoft and Apple researcher Linda Stone has written. "But the consequence is we're over stimulated, over-wound, and unfulfilled."
Ironically, human beings aren't wired to pay attention for long periods of time. Whether it's musicians, athletes, chess players or writers, the best performers turn out to
practice no more than four hours a day - not least because it's so difficult and taxing.
Moreover, they practice in highly focused periods of time no longer than 90 minutes, with a break in between each session.
Performing at the highest level depends not on the ability to juggle multiple demands at the same time, but rather on the capacity to focus intensely for short periods of time, and then rest and rejuvenate.
Attention is like any muscle. It gets stronger by training it systematically. Here are three powerful attentional practices to get you started.
Set aside at least one designated time each week to
think creatively, reflectively, strategically or long term.
Take at least a half an hour in the evening to read something challenging and absorbing - an antidote to churning out emails, and racing between websites.
Do the most important thing first every morning, without interruptions, for at least 60 to 90 minutes. It's the ideal way to take charge of your agenda and get the most challenging work done, with the highest efficiency. That's exactly what I've just done this morning and it was immensely satisfying.
If you'd like to assess how you manage your energy across all dimensions, take The Energy Audit here.
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