REPOST from Feb, 2017 – This problem seems to be getting worse rather than better.
Warren Buffet recently released his annual investor letter. It was twenty-nine pages long. It was refreshing to see. In a world where we increasingly hear that we must be brief due to decreased attention spans, Buffet chose to go with substance. I believe that was an intentional choice. Buffet wants serious investors in his company. He doesn’t want people who make investment decisions based on sound-bytes and infographics.
Poor focus and attention are becoming an epidemic. Sadly, unlike other epidemics, it seems like we are embracing it rather than fighting it. We’re given strategies for writing resumes that can be scanned in six seconds. New trends in corporate learning try to package content in the smallest chunks possible. Leaders are advised to keep their messages short. Communication experts recommend keeping emails to less than a screen.
It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are told that people lack attention, so we alter our interactions so that they don’t have to pay attention. We are creating a world where people can’t focus on anything for more than a few minutes at a time. That’s a problem.
The problem is that the actual world doesn’t present itself in three to five-minute chunks or cute two-minute videos. Neither do your customers’ or business’ problems.
How many of your most important or critical problems can be understood yet alone solved in less than five minutes?
Would you really want to be cared for by a doctor or nurse who can only focus on you and your illness for five minutes at a time? How about an investment manager, customer service representative or HVAC technician who gets distracted easily? Do you want your internal operations being managed by people who can’t maintain sustained focus on a problem? If not, why are we training them that way?
If your people can’t focus on a learning something for more than five minutes at a time, how can you expect them to focus on applying what they learned for much longer?
In the past decade, I’ve seen a strong correlation between decreased attention spans and poor performance. Increasingly, the problems that I run into in business don’t result from lack of knowledge or skill. They are usually rooted in lack of focus and attention.
We regularly hear that businesses need more critical thinking, greater innovation, better relationships between leaders and their people, and more empathic and effective customer service. Thinking, innovation, relationships, and caring don’t happen in five minutes. All require the ability to focus and pay attention.
Paying attention and being focused are skills. They must be developed, practiced, and continually honed. Yet, instead of developing our people’s abilities in these areas, we reinforce their weakness. How can people learn to focus when everything they receive is broken down for them?
I’m not suggesting that we make things arbitrarily complicated. Simplicity is still the best driver of understanding. However, simple doesn’t mean superficial. Substance doesn’t have to be complex. We live in a complicated world. Making sense of that world requires deep understanding of its relationships, interdependencies, and structure. You can’t always get that in five minutes.
Are you concerned that your people can’t focus at critical times? If so, perhaps they don’t have opportunities to learn and practice when it’s not.
Don’t cater to poor attention spans, fix them.
Set the expectation that focus, and attention are core requirements of your workforce. Communicate simply but provide enough context and information to provide a full understanding. Develop training that forces people to engage with problems in real and sustained ways. We can bring back attention and focus to the workplace. It just takes a little attention and focus.
Brad Kolar is an Executive Consultant, Speaker, and Author with Avail Advisors. Avail helps leaders improve their thinking and decision-making without sacrificing speed or agility. Contact Brad at firstname.lastname@example.org.