Let’s go back to the beginning of this year, Tony. Where were you at?
I was helping organisations understand the importance of human attention. For the last 15 years, productivity has been pretty stagnant, despite all the advances in technology. That bucks a trend of improving productivity that had gone back a couple of hundred years. Research shows the reason for that is a lack of quality attention: we’re distracted and overwhelmed, which makes it difficult to bring what’s amazing about human attention – the imagination, the creativity, the problem solving – to our work.
As individuals, though, we don’t get to leave that difficulty at the office…
That’s right. A lot of our behaviours and habits were designed for a different world, where you could finish work in a day and then go home. Technology means we now live in a much busier world, so the question is: how do we thrive in this new environment?
What I’ve found is that ‘busy’ isn’t inevitable. It’s a choice – not necessarily a conscious one, but a choice nevertheless. For example, research shows we actively compete to win conversations about who’s busier. There’s also an eminent psychologist who has put people in a room for 15 minutes with nothing to do other than give themselves electric shocks. Most of those people chose to give themselves a painful shock rather than be left with nothing do.
We’ve got hooked on a world of hyper-stimulation in which ‘busyness’ has become the easy option. Our habits around technology have driven us to a kind of endless multitasking. If we have a day at home, we find it easier to run around doing 101 tasks that don’t require very much from us than to sit down and give our child and their homework our undiluted attention – because that kind of immersive focus asks a lot more of us.
Should we blame ourselves for this predicament then?
Not entirely. Yes, it’s the fault of the tech giants for their prediction algorithms and, yes, it can be the fault of employers throwing too much at us, but in psychology there is also something called ‘learned helplessness’. This where we sense there's nothing we can do. It's my organisation! It's my boss! It's all the projects I've got going on! By telling ourselves we’ve got no option, we absolve ourselves of responsibility. When we do that, we reduce optimism, reduce resilience and make ourselves more vulnerable to stress.
That all makes sense, so why haven’t we learnt to look after ourselves better already?
I think we’ve all known we should be looking after ourselves a bit better for a long time, but we haven’t been compelled to do anything about it. To help people actually make changes, I want to show that there are life satisfaction benefits to not being busy that go way beyond just not being exhausted all the time – and that the key to unlocking them is attention.
Take knowledge and insight workers, for example. The quality of their output isn’t determined simply by the time they spend on the task. It depends on their ability to bring real concentration and imagination to the job in hand. It’s the same in our daily lives. Look back over the last month, I’ll bet every single time you experienced real joy was a time when your attention was sunk with reckless abandon into what you were doing. That’s the kind of happiness people often say is the main goal in life. and attention is fundamental to it. The opposite of busyness is not relaxing on a beach; it’s giving sustained, high-quality attention to the challenges in your life and to the people you care about. The issue today is how we can do that in spite of the information, distractions, expectations and demands that swirl around us.
That’s why a good starting point for dealing with work – whether you’re in the office or at home during lockdown – is to identify areas where you do have a choice and where you can make some decisions in favour of the goals that are really important to you. Those goals might be spending more time with loved ones or just recovering more. Whatever they are, small increases in our sense of control can have a huge impact on resilience and stress levels.