Attention Management is Key to Productivity, Profits, and a Better Employee Experience

01/24/2017 04:41 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2017

Co-authored by Dr. Edward Hallowell

We've seen a massive shift from manufacturing economies to knowledge economies.

This seismic change is well-documented. But we're overlooking something really important about it. And that's the way we approach productivity.

In a knowledge economy, productivity depends on cultivating your richest resource and your most powerful tool: the brainpower of employees.

Knowledge economies hinge on intellectual capability. Success depends on workers' ability to synthesize, to create and to innovate.

That means companies must provide an employee experience that facilitates this kind of focused work—one that emphasizes attention management. In other words, they need to take good care of their knowledge workers' brains.

This doesn't happen by chance. In fact, a lot of characteristics of today's workplaces lead to unproductive brains — and unhappy workers. In this article, we'll explain more about how your work culture affects your brain's ability to deliver insight, creativity and innovation. Then we'll show you how to make some brain-boosting changes. You can use these ideas to enhance your own work. And, if you're a leader, you can put them in place to help your team.

What Makes a Productive Brain?

Happy brains are productive brains. A positive employee experience creates positive feelings about work, which correlate with higher engagement and higher profitability. That's according to a study done in conjunction with the Harvard Business Review.

Also consider that 94% of leaders surveyed by the Institute for Transformational Leadership at Georgetown University report that the three states of mind that drive effective performance are calm, happy, and energized. Shorthand for the mental conditions that encourage productivity is “C-state.” C-state is a condition where employees are able to manage their attention, harness their focus, and experience the following emotions:

  • Calm
  • Collected
  • Careful
  • Concentrated
  • Courteous
  • Curious
  • Consistent
  • Creative
  • Convivial

When Work Is Bad For Your Brain

Most workplaces don't exactly cultivate these brain-healthy conditions for their knowledge workers. If your workplace is like most, you might be all too familiar with working in distracting conditions like these:

  • You work long hours and skimp on vacation time.
  • You're always doing two or three things at once.
  • You get distracted from your work by emails, text and other alerts.

Working this way isn't just stressful. It's also taking away the things your brain needs — restorative breaks and deep focus — to do your best work. You may be busy. You may even get praise for being so busy. But you aren't necessarily being productive. Instead, you're not able to manage your attention, and you’re in F-state, feeling some combination of:

  • Fearful
  • Frantic
  • Frenetic
  • Forgetful
  • Frustrated
  • Furious
  • Feckless
  • Failing

Focus on Brain-Building

It's not that companies set out to create stressed knowledge workers who can't complete a thought. As we alluded to above, it's easy to mistake busyness for productivity. And the innovations that change how we work have hit us at a lightning pace. Bad habits (like allowing constant distractions) spring up quickly and without intention.

That has to stop. It's time for forward-thinking companies, leaders and aspiring leaders to act with more intention, and consider their employees experience with regard to productivity. It's time to create workplaces that minimize distraction, and nurture attention management and the mental performance of knowledge workers. Your company might already have wellness and engagement programs. It's time for brain-optimizing initiatives to join them.

Strategies for Organizations

If you're a leader in your workplace, talk with others on your management team about ideas like these. They'll give your knowledge workers what they need to deliver their best results and accomplish your most important goals.

  • Be deliberate about communication. Establish communication policies that untether employees from email. This will help them reduce multitasking so they can do more focused work. It will also give them more downtime outside the office. This mental break helps them be more productive when they are at work.
  • Get serious about time off. Actively promote taking vacation time. When your knowledge workers take time to rejuvenate, they'll stay sharper and more productive over the long term.
  • Give back control. Especially in an open office, encourage workers to personalize their work areas. Employees feel dissatisfaction when they lack control over their surroundings.
  • Set boundaries that support attention management. Establish “office signals” that everyone can recognize and practice. For example, using headphones can signal that an employee is doing focused work and doesn't want to be interrupted.
  • Value quiet. Include areas in your office that support not only collaboration but also quieter, more focused work.
  • Consider 'Think Time.' Tim Armstrong, CEO of AOL, is achieving great success at that company. That's partly due to his policy of “10% Think Time.” He requires that every executive spend 10% of every workweek thinking: no electronics, no agenda, no other people. He reports it has had a major impact on productivity and deep work.
  • Update your productivity training. Today's distraction-filled environments have made much of conventional time-management advice irrelevant. A better option is teaching productivity skills that include attention-management.

Strategies for Individuals

As an individual knowledge worker, you don't have to wait for company policies to change to start getting more from your brain. Try a few of these tips.

  • Get some face time. We have a lot of virtual interactions with others. Try to replace some with face-to-face interactions. They're good for your brain.
  • Never worry alone. This is one of the least productive things you can do. When you worry alone, your brain overheats and you quickly go into F-state (remember, this is the mental condition that torpedoes your productivity and happiness). Talk to someone, if not in person, then over the phone.
  • Surround yourself with photos. Keep pictures of people and places you love on your desk and walls. When F-state creeps in, look at your photos. They should help you get back to a calmer, more productive frame of mind.
  • Reboot your stressed brain. Feel F-state coming on? Stop. Go to the bathroom and splash cold water on your face. Get a burst of exercise: Run up and down stairs or do 20 pushups on your office floor. Even just 3 minutes of exercise pushes the restart button on your brain.
  • Remember your power. Most of us have more control than we exercise. Turn off your electronics now and then. Close your office door if you have one. Create boundaries where none exist, both physical boundaries and availability boundaries. These will help you manage your attention.

Initiatives to optimize brain function are the missing piece in supporting knowledge workers' attention management and productivity, and creating a positive employee experience. And knowledge workers themselves can take their success into their own hands and maximize their most important resources: their brain and state of mind. Steps like the ones we suggest here increase both performance and satisfaction. They'll set you and your company up to increase productivity and thrive over the long term.

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