We are facing a productivity crisis. Global economic indicators suggest that people in westernized countries are working more hours and getting less outcome. This should be of great concern to us as leaders as well as individuals. Who wants to work harder and get less done?
Although there are many reasons for this alarming trend, one of the biggest factors is that people are distracted and unfocused at work. Too many of us spend too much time doing lots of things but not necessarily the right things that generate results. Everyone is very busy but not necessarily very productive.
At the root of this busyness are minds that are under too much pressure, have too much information and too many distractions. Specifically, in modern working life, our attention has come under siege, negatively impacting our performance and clarity of mind.
Work life has changed drastically over the past two decades. We have gone from working with single information objects such as pens and typewriters to working in realities that are bombarded with information. Technology such as computers, tablets, the internet, email, phones, etc., are great and can enhance our productivity. At the same time, many of these technologies pull our attention in multiple directions limiting our ability to maintain focus.
In fact, researchers have found that our ability to maintain our attention is getting less and less. The Harvard Business Review article, "Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform" sums it up in these words: “Modern office life and an increasingly common condition called attention deficit trait, are turning steady executives into frenzied underachievers”.
How much is our attention suffering nowadays? According to researchers, 46.9% of the time, on average, our attention is wandering involuntarily away from what we are doing. In a work context, this means that almost half the time we are at work we are not truly present with the people we are with or the task at hand. What does this means for customer service? For meeting effectiveness? For safety and environmental protection? Any time we are not paying attention we are at a minimum limiting our effectiveness and in the extreme could be putting ourselves and others at risk.
The bottom line is we are facing an Attention Economy. One of the most valuable currencies in any business today is a clear, calm and focused attention. In the past, qualifications and experience have been the key factors in determining success potential. But too many highly competent people are finding themselves overwhelmed and underperforming. The better an individual is at being able to manage their attention, the more chance they will be focused on the right things and be able to get them done with greater efficiency and effectiveness.
And here is the great news. Enhancing one’s ability to manage attention is a skill that can be trained. One of the best ways to train the attentional muscle is mindfulness. A simple definition of mindfulness is a set of tools and techniques designed to help you learn to manage your attention. Although mindfulness training can be seen as an individual activity, recognizing that we are all living in an Attention Economy, there are many benefits in the skillful application of mindfulness into a work setting
Companies like GE, Nike, Carlsberg, Accenture, IKEA, Sony and many more are seeing the challenges of modern work life and are doing something about it. They are implementing mindfulness training programs to enhance performance, productivity and safety in the workplace. These companies recognize the strategic benefits in helping leaders and all levels of employees better manage their attentional muscle.
One example of a company that found great benefit in training employees in mindfulness was a global manufacturing company facing a financial downturn and having to implement internal cutbacks and major restructuring. The CEO and his teams faced a reality of fewer hands lifting heavier loads. He knew his people needed tools to deal with this reality in a way where they would not burn out or get stressed. At the same time, they needed to be more effective and make good choices on how to manage their limited time and attention. From the senior leaders to the front line, people needed to work differently. “Business as usual” wasn’t going to work anymore. They needed new ways of working.
Over a four month period, groups of leaders and employees participated in 10 workshops of one hour each. They also attended daily mindfulness training sessions of 10 minutes a day, during regular working hours. The workshops introduced them to a simple, yet powerful mindfulness training practice as well as practical tips on how to maintain mindfulness while dealing with emails, attending meetings, sticking to priorities and other daily work activities.
During the four months, the CEO witnessed a gradual change in the culture and way people worked. He observed: “The focus gained through the mindfulness practices seems to help us all stay on track with the task at hand. But more importantly, the mental clarity the training provides helps us to prioritize more clearly. Rather than doing things as we used to, we seem to be better able to reflect and cut out redundant processes. Instead of doing everything, we are better able to do the right things.”
In an attention economy, caring for people’s attention helps them to focus on priorities rather than reacting to the relentless stream of distractions. Especially in times of cutbacks and restructuring, the ability to shed distractions and yesterday’s habits is what allows us to see the new reality clearly and do “the right things” and not just everything. And to be realistic, with the pace of business and competition nowadays, this ability seems to apply even when things are going well.
So if you agree that we are facing a productivity crisis and that our attention is under siege, what are you doing to reverse this trend? Corporate mindfulness can be integrated into day-to-day activities. It doesn’t have to be something else you need to do. Instead, to realize the most from mindfulness it is best to make it part of everything you do and integrate it into your new way of doing things. What could the ability to better pay attention mean for you and for your organization?
Rasmus Hougaard is an internationally acknowledged expert in bringing mindfulness to organizations. Together with his global team of consultants in Potential Project, he has served hundreds of organizations. Hougaard's background combines research in organizational development with a career at Sony and more than 20 years of practicing and teaching mindfulness. He is the author of One Second Ahead – Enhance Your Performance at Work with Mindfulness, which summarizes his mindfulness training program.
Jacqueline Carter is a partner of The Potential Project International and director of The Potential Project North America. She is passionate about working with leaders to enhance performance, effectiveness and well-being. She has helped large North American production companies implementing mindfulness to enhance leadership and organizational productivity.