Distraction as a Cause of Recession; Why Recovery Will Require Paying More Attention (Plus: How I Finally Disconnected on Vacation!)

For the past few months I’ve pondered these questions:

  • Would people have made better personal financial decisions such as charging less to credit cards, and taking mortgages that they couldn’t afford if they’d paid closer attention to what they were doing?
  • Would leaders in financial institutions have seen the red flags sooner if they’d periodically stepped back, disconnected, and reflected on what their businesses were doing?

Upon reflection, it does seem that many of the choices and behaviors that contributed to the current recession all come back to a lack of attention.  Hindsight is always 20/20, and you have to be careful about too much Monday morning quarterbacking.  But, if we want to avoid making the same mistakes twice, being less distracted and paying closer attention needs to part of that post-recession work+life reality.

To get a better understanding of why paying attention in all aspect of our lives is so important and how a lack of it contributed to our current crises, I decided to go right to the source, Maggie Jackson, author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.  Reading Jackson’s book last year was a revelation (click here for my FastCompany.com review), and it caused me to rethink many of my personal behaviors and choices, as well as reconsider the way we were parenting our children.

A couple of months ago, I asked Jackson to share her thoughts with me about why distraction got us where we are today, and how paying more attention will be critical in the post-recession reality.  Here are highlights from our conversation:

CY: Is there a connection between a lack of attention and our current economic crisis?

MJ:  Yes, there is definitely a connection between our fragmented work styles and the economic situation, whether it’s the distracted bankers who didn’t understand what they were doing, or the individual American who checked out on the cost of their highly leveraged lifestyle.

There’s a rich body of research underscoring the cost of fragmented, interrupted time at work.  Whether it’s chopping up thinking with the constant interruptions of technology, or doing several things at once, when we fragment high-order thinking and problem-solving it leads to lower creativity, sub-par performance and a lack of innovation.

But more importantly for where we are today, it leads to a lack of vision which is extremely toxic.  We need to be able to have vision to see ourselves moving forward.  Intangible, abstract, higher order comprehension is needed to understand the future and to see warning signs.  Not having this is very corrosive, as we are seeing.

CY:  But we were “productive,” and had so much more information because of technology?

MJ: We need to rethink the meaning of “productive.”  We have information overload from skimming.  What we are missing is a deeper understanding, deeper connections.  Interestingly there is an SAT of Information Literary.  They are finding a dichotomy.  College students are quick to find information, but have trouble with the deeper analysis of that information. Yes, there has been a gain in terms of the access to information, but we need to really think about what is lost with that as well.

CY: Have you seen changes being made to reduce the amount of distraction and help people engage in deeper thinking and analysis?

Yes, I have and it’s very encouraging.  For example, there’s a hospital in Kentucky that trying to build in time for reflection, focus and awareness into the way work is being done.  IBM has instituted “Think Fridays,” where efforts are made to reduce meetings and other interruptions.

I’m also seeing a greater awareness about the importance of paying attention on the part of individuals.  They are ready to ask questions and find out more about it.  I was at a speech recently where the conversation turned to our relationship with “the machine.”  What the attendees meant was how we allowed  the machinery of life to take charge.  How we let computers take over and we just checked out.  “Machinery” became the norm, and we need to rethink that.  (Check out WorldatWork’s new study “Implications of Employer-Supplied Connectivity Devices.”)

CY: Thank you, Maggie.

For more on Maggie Jackson and her “attention movement,” check out these excellent interviews on The Huffington Post and the Harvard Business Review online.  And for my  prior posts on the subject of attention and awareness, click here and here.

Attention Case Study:  I Finally 100% Disconnected on Vacation!

I waited a couple of months to share my conversation with Maggie Jackson because I wanted to see if I could tackle one of my ongoing distraction challenges—not fully disconnecting from work during vacation.  After reading Jackson’s book last year, I understood why it was so important to take real meaningful breaks from work, vacation being one of them.  I’ve struggled with what I call my “vacation quandary” for years.  Specifically the push-pull between wanting to take a vacation, but finding myself for a variety of seemingly valid reasons to continuing to check in.  The brain research presented in Distracted finally convinced me I needed to commit to completely disconnecting.

Two weeks ago, I put my commitment to the test when my family went to on vacation for a week.  Even though I had my Blackberry (it’s my cell phone), I decided not to read or reply to emails.  I did not Twitter.  I did not check if there were comments on my blogs.  I checked my voicemail a couple of times, but did not respond because none of the messages were urgent.  So how did it feel to disconnect? Was I a more present while on vacation?  Did I feel clearer, better able to engage in critical-thinking when I returned?  I can categorically say yes to all of the above.  It did make a difference…and I had a lot more fun!

Are you attention-challenged?  How can you build in fewer interruptions, and reduce the level of distraction in your own life?  How do we create a more thoughtful, aware post-recession work+life reality?

3 thoughts on “Distraction as a Cause of Recession; Why Recovery Will Require Paying More Attention (Plus: How I Finally Disconnected on Vacation!)

  1. I’m partway through Jackson’s book myself and am finding that it lays out some very sobering considerations regarding where today’s society is headed via a fixation on information and productivity. It is causing me, too, to take a closer look at what I spend my attention on. The resulting changes I’m making are spelling a more abundant life overall.

    A great book for anyone’s consideration – would be a great group read for teams.

  2. Thank you for your comments! The hospital in Kentucky’s work is very experimental, and so not ready for prime-time. But I will be tracking and writing about further efforts to strengthen attention, individually and collectively. Send me your stories, at http://www.maggie-jackson.com.

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