AttentionPsychology: Harnessing Your Attention in a Hyperconnected World. Photo: Ben White (Unsplash)

Psychology: Harnessing Your Attention in a Hyperconnected World

This is an edited extract from Can I Have Your Attention?: Inspiring Better Work Habits, Focusing Your Team, and Getting Stuff Done in the Constantly Connected Workplace by Curt Steinhorst with Jonathan McKee.

The Vault

Remember writing term papers in college? Maybe you were responsible and started a week or so prior to the due date. Or maybe you pounded it out the day before the deadline. Everyone has a system (if we can call procrastination a system).

My question is: Where did you typically write your papers? Your dorm room? The library? Starbucks? It always intrigues me where people go when they really need to concentrate and get something accomplished. When that term paper is due, most students flee their normal surroundings and seek a spot without distractions. They probably populate their favorite coffee shop, drowning out their environment with headphones.

Where do you go today?

As I write this, I'm sitting in my backyard. It has a small covered patio with plush outdoor furniture, and my favorite chair faces a perimeter of trees and a manicured lawn. When serious work needs to get done, this is where I sit.

It's early, so the Dallas heat hasn't set in. Some traffic noise reaches me, but mostly all I hear are birds and the occasional bark of my neighbor's dog. The only distraction is a squirrel scurrying around an oak in search of food.

My phone is in the house. In an emergency, my wife will get me. Otherwise, the only message that could reach me would have to come from a carrier pigeon.
The backyard patio is my vault. I'll get more done here in an hour than most of my colleagues will accomplish all day.

Modern workplaces don't provide quiet places of concentration. As a result, our attention grows weaker by the day. This isn't just inconvenient - it's tragic. Exceptional work requires space to focus.

Where can you and your team go to harness attention?

John Kim, a top investor in New York, manages the wealth of the superrich. In a world where speed is everything, he blocks out more than an hour a day each morning to read and contemplate questions such as, "What will the world look like in 5 years?"

There's perhaps no industry that feels more obligated to stay on top of up-to-the-second data than financial investing. There are even books written about investment desks who benefit from split-second advantages in data (e.g., Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, by Michael Lewis).

Modern workplaces don't provide quiet places of concentration. As a result, our attention grows weaker by the day. This isn't just inconvenient - it's tragic. Exceptional work requires space to focus.

What happens if one of John's investments crashes from an announcement? When everyone else has already pulled their stock, he will lose millions in the hour he takes to make a move! John understands what few others do - the advantage of the day goes not to the one who reads the newest CNBC update 30 seconds faster but instead to the one who sees the world more clearly.

John has a degree from Harvard and a PhD in economics from MIT, but the truth is, as he would attest, it doesn't take a genius to know how to create unique value in today's world. It takes creating the space to think when no one else is.

Many of us would protest, "I don't have an hour a day!". But John beats the market because he does what few others will.

The interesting thing is that people like John used to be the norm. Now, in today's hyperconnected world, they are the exception. It's like my grandfather, who was in great shape but never worked out at a gym. The demands of his job and life kept him in motion. You don't need to run on a treadmill when you are moving all day long.

Today, we go to gyms because our jobs leave us stationary. The irony is that there is nothing in a gym that we can't get for free somewhere else. We have the equivalent of pull-up bars (trees), free weights (furniture), and treadmills (the sidewalk) in abundance. We go to gyms because they are distinct places set apart for something we need that our stationary lifestyle doesn't naturally give us.

Unfortunately, in today's day and age, we seem to have no equivalent for our attention health. No place to burn the fat of distraction, exercise our imaginations, and build up muscle memory for focused attention.

A gym for your mind

But each of us can have a focus gym. It's your vault, and it helps preserve attention and keep unwanted distractions - human and digital - away from you.

A component of my work involves helping often resistant leaders create vaults for themselves. Then they can evangelize the concept for their employees.

What does a vault look like?

It's an unreachable place where you go for defined periods to focus on your most important tasks. The location can be anywhere from a home office to even a cubicle.

This is an edited extract from Can I Have Your Attention?: Inspiring Better Work Habits, Focusing Your Team, and Getting Stuff Done in the Constantly Connected Workplace by Curt Steinhorst with Jonathan McKee.

About the authors:

CURT STEINHORST is a speaker, business owner, entrepreneur, and founder of FocusWise. He equips professionals across the world to work smarter and stronger in this constantly-connected age. Steinhorst is a leading voice on strategic communications in the age of distraction and a certified speaker at the Center for Generational Kinetics. He is also the founder of a communications consultancy called Promentum Group.

JONATHAN MCKEE is an expert on youth culture and Millennials, and the author of over twenty books.