How can we keep the benefits and avoid the pitfalls of technological attraction?
"In a Distracted World, Solitude Is a Competitive Advantage", writes Mike Erwin in his recent article in Harvard Business Review.
With the benefits of technological progress within easy reach, we are grateful for all the alleviation it's bringing us. Yet, we can also be seduced into giving up our focus and priorities when a whole world opens up at our fingertips. Our brain can only take so much before it starts to search for the relief of NOT focusing any longer. In plain language: it gets distracted. This is strongly induced by multitasking.
Research by the University of London reveals that our IQ drops by five to 15 points when we are multitasking. Performance can decrease by up to 50% when a person focuses on two mental tasks at once. Stanford University professor Clifford Nass concluded that distractions reduce the brain’s ability to filter out irrelevancy in its working memory.
How can we keep the benefits of technology and avoid the pitfalls?
"There is no silver bullet to solving the complex problems ushered in by the information age", writes Mike Erwin. But there are some good places to start, and one of them is counterintuitive: solitude. Having the discipline to step back from the noise of the world is essential to staying focused. This is even more important in a highly politicized society that constantly incites our emotions, causing the cognitive effects of distractions to linger. In our book, Lead Yourself First, Ray Kethledge and I define solitude as a state of mind, a space in which to focus one’s own thoughts without distraction — and where the mind can work through a problem on its own."
How to stay focused at work? Some suggestions from Mike Erwin:
Build periods of solitude into your schedule.
Treat it as you would any meeting or an appointment. If you don’t schedule and commit to solitude, something else will come up. Make space in your mind to do the hard thinking that is essential to good decision making and leadership.
Analyze where your time is best spent.
Most of us have meetings that we can afford to miss, and most of us underutilize our energy because we have not allocated time to reflect and be rigorous about our priorities.
Starve your distractions. Social media, YouTube, and the limitless possibilities of the internet hang over our heads. They tempt us to click links that take us to another five-minute video or article. Acknowledge the ways that the internet lures you in, and then intervene by logging out of your social media accounts and blocking certain websites during work hours — especially the ones you use for a quick distraction “when you have 10 minutes to kill.”
Don’t be too busy to learn how to be less busy. One of the biggest reasons we struggle to focus is because we fill our schedules with too many commitments and we consistently prioritize urgent tasks over important ones. Leadership development and training opportunities exist to enhance your ability to understand yourself better, to reflect, and to grow. Don’t let the tempo of work get in the way of good development opportunities (once in a while).
Create a “stop doing” list. There are only so many hours in a day. As your to-do list grows, you cannot keep accumulating more tasks. Solitude gives you the space to reflect on where your time is best spent, which provides you with the clarity to decide which meetings you should stop attending, which committees you should step down from, and which invitations you should politely decline. This is something that Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, has been advising people to do for many years.
The volume of our communication, and our unfettered access to information and other people, have made it more difficult than ever to focus. Despite this reality, there is another truth: Opportunities to focus are still all around us. But we must recognize them and believe that the benefit of focus, for yourself and the people you lead, is worth making it a priority in your life. In other words, before you can lead others, the first person you must lead is yourself.
Mike Erwin is the co-author of Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude and CEO of the Character & Leadership Center. He is also the president of The Positivity Project and a Lt. Colonel in the Army Reserve, assigned to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point as an Assistant Professor in Leadership & Psychology.