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The Distractions Epidemic: Why managing our attention needs to become a top priority  – Human Resource Management



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Suppose you’re a fellow geriatric Millennial, a Gen-Xer or a
Boomer working in the legal industry. In that case, you will
remember the good old days when a pile of mail would be delivered
to your desk in the morning after you’d made your morning
coffee. At that point, you would know what your day had in store,
and you could work through the pile methodically and reply
thoughtfully. Responding by letter meant that once you put the
envelope in the mail tray, you may have weeks before you would need
to think about it again. Sure, emails would arrive, yet nowhere
near the suffocating volume we now manage on a daily basis – not to
mention the incredible pace we are now operating at, with immediate
responses rebounding back to your inbox (and the expectation that
you will respond almost instantaneously).

In our fast-paced legal firm, I see how easy it is to get
flustered with the constant barrage of emails and the distraction
they cause. Add to that our addiction to phones and social media,
and there is no wonder we feel overwhelmed with the constant
“pings” and interruptions.

Numerous books, podcasts and TED talks feed into our obsession
with increasing productivity and managing our time more
efficiently, but are we getting anywhere? I’m convinced that
“inbox anxiety” is a genuine condition!

According to a survey of 10,500 workers in 7 countries by Asana
and GWI in 2021, 37% of participants admitted feeling overwhelmed
by email and message notifications, and 56% felt obliged to respond
immediately. In a study of US workers by Gloria Mark at the
University of California, researchers found that the typical office
worker is interrupted or switches tasks, on average, every 3
minutes and 5 seconds. A study by Professor Posner at the
University of Oregon also found that once distracted, it takes
workers an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to
where they left off.

To combat the distractions, Gloria Mark suggested that we are
now working faster and producing less to compensate, resulting in
more stress and frustration (and probably producing work of a lower
standard).

In his book Stolen Focus, Johann Hari says that switching tasks
causes you to lose focus, make mistakes and is a creativity drain.
And that applies to us too, ladies – we can’t successfully
multitask either!

“Attention management is the art of focusing on getting
things done for the right reasons, in the right places and at the
right moments.”
– Adam Grant

According to the Harvard Business Review, “Attention
management is the practice of controlling distractions, being
present in the moment, finding flow, and maximising focus, so that you can unleash your genius. It’s about being
intentional instead of reactive”.

In my research and my experience, the following four habits
might help:

  1. Dan Pink suggests working with your circadian rhythm to figure
    out when to be productive and when to be creative. If you’re a
    morning person like me, schedule analytical tasks when you’re
    at your peak alertness (or peak caffeinationlevels) and
    save simple administrative duties for the lulls (for me, that’s
    3 pm).

  2. Instead of cutting off distractions altogether, schedule times
    for checking messages, email and catching up with co-workers, and
    quiet times for finding your flow – maybe this is a day working
    from home?

  3. Pick up the phone! It can be easier to send an email to get
    something off the to-do list, but if it doesn’t resolve the
    issue and it’s only just going to bounce back, it’s
    probably worth having a conversation.

  4. Give up on multitasking.

I wonder whether it’s time we shift the focus to attention
management, rather than time management, as a top priority for
employers, managers, and employees? Might we see less burnout,
frustration and stress in our ranks as we adapt to this modern
world?

The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.

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