How do we slow down in a world speeding up?

15th November by Lee Robertson

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Photo by Lucian Alexe on Unsplash

The average CEO of a Fortune 500 company gets just 28 uninterrupted minutes a day. Most of those working in offices never get a whole hour uninterrupted in an entire day. The average American worker is distracted roughly once every three minutes and many employees now spend 40 per cent of their time wrongly believing they are ‘multitasking’.

Our productivity, concentration and attention to detail are being engulfed by a silent crisis. Quite simply, our focus has been stolen. Hijacked. Sabotaged. However we dress it up, it is a threat to how we perform at work and how we lead our people.

Are our collective attention spans shrinking?

At this year’s Great Leadership Reset conference, New York Times’ best-selling author Johann Hari will be sharing some candid insights from his latest landmark book, Stolen Focus.

Known for tackling big subjects like drug addiction, Hari has turned crusader in the war against our attention disintegrating. In his most recent beautifully researched piece of work, he tackles some of the profoundest issues facing all of us. From big tech swamping our newsfeeds, to the world speeding up around us, Hari offers us a disturbing, but hopeful exploration of why our focus has been compromised and what we can do to win it back.

Hari asks in Stolen Focus if our collective span is really shrinking. What he found is that with each passing decade for more than 130 years, topics have come faster and faster. The system is being deluged with information and the more pumped in, the less time we can focus on any individual piece of it. It is the increase in the tsunamic volume of information that is creating the sensation that the world is speeding up.

While we have to admit that it is good news that information is more accessible than ever, it does come with a cost. We are sacrificing depth and depth takes time, reflection and attention. As Hari quotes from a scientific paper co-authored by Sune Lehmann, we are collectively experiencing ‘a more rapid exhaustion of attention resources.’

The reality is that as workers and leaders we are all experiencing the need to do things faster, to switch between demands more quickly and get speedier at filtering out information. This is damaging productivity, relationships and innovation in the workplace.

So how do we slow down in a world that is speeding up?

Hari ascertained that when we engage with deliberately slow practices like yoga or meditation, the result is that they improve our ability to pay attention by a significant amount. As Guy Claxton professor of learning studies at the University of Winchester told Hari in the book, ‘we have to shrink the world to fit our cognitive bandwidth. If we go too fast, you overload your abilities and they degrade. But when you practise moving at a speed that is compatible with human nature – and you build that into your daily life – you begin to train your attention and focus’. In short, slowness nurtures attention and speed shatters it.

Our flow states are under attack

Although Hari outlines twelve main causes for why our focus is being diminished, one of the most important factors in relation to productivity and high performance is that our flow states are being crippled by external elements.

In the book Hari introduces us to the Father of Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who he describes as a remarkable man who opened up a whole new field of psychology in the 1960s and whose work Hari has studied over the years.

Mihaly’s curiosity was caught when he began to wonder what was driving some of the individuals such as artists, he kept company with. He wondered if these people were describing a fundamental human instinct that had not been studied before. He called it a ‘flow state’ meaning we are so absorbed in what we are doing that time slips away and you are flowing in the experience itself. It is as Hari says, the deepest form of focus and attention that we know of.

But flow states are fragile and easily disrupted. How can we mitigate unwanted interruptions or thwart procrastination?

Mihaly points out the need for a positive goal here otherwise why keep going? So, it is in doing something meaningful that the flow state is easiest to achieve. It is also doing something that is at the edge of your abilities, not beyond them.

Once the ideal conditions have been created, Hari says that you hit flow and can recognise it because it is a distinctive mental state. You feel you are purely present in the moment. You experience a loss of self-consciousness. In this state it is like your ego has vanished and you have merged with the task – like you are the rock you are climbing. The bottom line is that we need to strip out our distractions and replace them with sources of flow.

Karen Smart, the AoEC’s head of consultancy who will be facilitating the Great Leadership Reset conference says: “To have someone like Johann Hari speaking at the conference is an immense privilege because so much of what he points out in Stolen Focus is symptomatic of what is happening in workplaces. Working hours have swelled to the point where we are working harder than ever before, but we are being distracted more and have become less productive. The insights Johann will share at the conference offer valuable learning points for leaders and their employees. By slowing down and using methods like coaching to improve our quality of thought, we will be much better at decision-making, problem solving and innovating in a world that is ever more complex and uncertain.”