November 19, 2019

In the digital world,

the scarce commodity is attention

Attention is one of the scarcest and most valuable resources in the 24/7 connected digital world. Individuals have unlimited access to a wealth of information anytime, anywhere, on any device. The challenge is that these individuals still have limited time and a limited attention span to consume and process this wealth of information.

Attention economics is an approach to the management of information that treats human attention as a scarce commodity and applies economic theory to solve various information management problems. Put simply by Matthew Crawford, “Attention is a resource—a person has only so much of it.”

Psychologist and economist, Hebert Simon describes attention as a “bottleneck” in human thought. He also said that “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

Recent studies have documented that the average employee switches tasks every three minutes and has a maximum focus stretch of 12 minutes. Much of this constant attention shifting behavior is due to employees trying to do multiple things at the same time. Julie Morgenstern, a productivity consultant, has shown that “stripping multi-tasking from your work routine would help you gain back 30%-40% of your actual time and mental clarity (attention) per day.”

Whether your intent is to capture and hold your employees’ attention at work or your customers’ attention during a buying process, the obstacles above are equally challenging.

What distracts our attention?

Multiple studies have identified a series of major sources that distract individuals’ attention in the workplace or the marketplace including:

  • An office worker, on average, will check their email inbox 30 times every hour
  • The average user picks up their mobile phone 1,500 times a week taking up over 3 hours of time a day
  • On average web page users will only read 28% of the words during a visit
  • The average web user leaves the page in 10-20 seconds

Studies have also shown that people who use a mobile device during a meeting are so distracted that it’s almost as if they aren’t present at all. As such, many companies have instituted a “mobile device ban” for all meetings.

Emails, text messages, and intra-office collaboration tools are constant sources of attention distraction throughout everyone’s day. Without controlling these interruptions, it’s virtually impossible to bring your full and deliberate attention to accomplishing critical tasks in a timely manner.

Different types of attention

There are multiple types of attention that individuals use during the course of their daily activities. Depending on their need and circumstances, they may deploy one of the four types below:

  • Sustained attention which is the ability to focus on one specific task for a continuous amount of time without being distracted.
  • Selective attention is the ability to select from many factors or stimuli and to focus only on the one that you want while filtering out other distractions.
  • Alternating attention is the ability to switch your focus back and forth between tasks that require different cognitive demands.
  • Divided attention is the ability to process two or more responses which is often referred to as multi-tasking.

The study results and statistics cited earlier would suggest that the quality and value of attention as a resource declines in descending order from top to bottom of the types above.

The power of full engagement

Former colleague and good friend, Jim Loehr, sports psychologist, author and co-founder of the Human Performance Institute created and evangelized the power of full engagement. The tenets were based on his initial work and research with elite athletes and then “corporate athletes” to help them achieve their maximum performance in high stress situations.

Here is his perspective on how attention impacts performance:

“We live in a digital time. Our rhythms are rushed, rapid fire and relentless, our days carved up into bits and bytes. We celebrate breadth rather than depth, quick reaction more than considered reflection. We skim across the surface, alighting for brief moments at dozens of destinations but rarely remaining for long at any one.”

“To be fully engaged, we need to be fully present. To be fully present we must be physically energized, emotionally connected and mentally focused.”

During multiple conversations and time spent with Jim, I learned first-hand how critical undivided attention was to achieving high-performance results. In my work with CEO’s and C-Suite executives along with middle managers and frontline workers, the difference between success and failure is their ability to focus their attention on what is important and not be distracted by what is urgent.

Do decreased work hours lead to increased attention?

While many companies have experimented with flexible hours and work schedules, two recent examples have documented that decreasing work hours leads to increased attention and performance.

Rheingans Digital Enabler is a small technology consulting firm in Bielefeld, Germany which develops websites, apps, and e-commerce platforms. It was acquired by now CEO Lasse Rheingans in 2017 and was not returning a profit. In his previous jobs, he realized that checking Facebook and responding to all his emails caused him to spend extra hours at the office rather than with his family.

As a result, he instituted a program that reduced the time spent at the office for all 16 employees to 5 hours a day from the standard 8 while leaving their salaries and vacation time at the same levels. His belief was that employees can deliver the same output during a “focused 25-hour week as in 40 hours interrupted with distractions.”

To achieve that result he instituted the following policies:

  • Small talk during working hours is discouraged
  • Social media is banned
  • Phones are kept in backpacks
  • Company email accounts are checked just twice a day
  • Most meetings are scheduled to last no more than 15 minutes

In 2018, the company became profitable, his employees are happier and deliver better work for their clients. The shorter work week has also been a strong recruitment incentive in Germany’s tight labor market.

This summer, Microsoft introduced a program called “Work Life Choice Challenge” in Japan. The pilot program closed offices every Friday in August to give employees an extra day off each week.

Employees were told to keep meetings shorter (no longer than 30 minutes) and spend less time responding to email, communicating via a Microsoft messaging app instead.

The reduced time and interruptions at work resulted in a 40% increase in sales per employee compared to the same period the year before.

Harnessing and focusing individual attention in the workplace and the marketplace is turning out to be a differentiating source of competitive advantage.

As always, I am interested in your comments, feedback and perspectives on the ideas put forth in this blog. Please e-mail them to me at pdmoore@woellc.com. And, if this content could be useful to someone you know please share it here: