Have you ever entered a room and forgot what it was you came for? Or couldn’t remember which day of the week it was today? Don’t worry, it’s not early onset dementia and you’re not alone.
The author Johann Hari calls it Stolen Focus and it turns out that the whole of society is having a problem with paying attention right now. His research shows that the average worker is distracted once every 3 minutes. It means that most people never get a full hour to themselves without being interrupted. Does that feel familiar?
The world puts pressure on us to multi-task and be more productive with our time. Think of the endless tropes of women juggling a crying baby, laptop and phone calls. However Hari’s research tells us that our brains can’t multi-task at all. What they can do is switch very rapidly between one task and another. But there’s a switching cost; those constant distractions make you slower and your performance drops. You also lose time by having to refocus. It’s estimated that technological distractions such as calls, emails, texts etc, cause a drop in IQ of 10 points. It’s twice the effect of smoking marijuana and a lot less fun.
You’ll also be able to remember less. It takes a lot of brain space and energy to create memories and if you spend energy on constantly switching, you’ll remember and learn less. It’s estimated that at least 40% of work time is spent multi-tasking- with an enormous cost to attention and focus.
During the worst of the COVID lockdowns I felt like my brain was fried and I completely lost track of time. The combination of constant distractions, longer working hours and elevated stress levels meant that I was burned out by the end of the year. Judging by the amount of people booking holidays this year, I clearly wasn’t alone.
What are the implications of this loss of attention and focus for partnerships? The most valuable ones need time, creativity and strategic thinking. Exactly what most of us don’t have right now.
Creating space for partnerships
What does your typical day look like? Do you have endless internal meetings that don’t resolve anything but leave you with another To Do list? If you want strategic, innovative partnerships you need to create the space in your day for free, undistracted time. Only when your brain is allowed to wander will it create new connections and ideas. Can you block out an hour or two every day when you turn off your phone and emails and just think? Sounds like a luxury in an open plan office, so maybe invest in an hour when you just go for a walk or sit in the park with a notebook. The productivity guru Donna McGeorge talks about the value of the first two hours in the day. That’s when you’re freshest and your brain is ready to attack the toughest challenges- not 3pm when everyone is flagging.
Asking you to turn off your technological distractions is not the whole answer. It’s like telling morbidly obese people to eat more fresh food when the world is busy selling them processed, sugary stuff. Being aware of your distractions and understanding the cost to your focus, attention and thinking will help you take control of your time and think of ways to create the thinking space you need.
Getting a corporate’s attention
Those horrifying statistics are playing out in your corporate prospect’s world every day. CSR teams are usually lean, with staff working across multiple areas and community relationships. Then they get distracted when an unsolicited approach lands in their inbox. Our research shows that you’ve got about 15 seconds of your prospect’s time for them to read it, choose to respond, forward it to someone else or just delete it.
If you haven’t received a response the first or second time, don’t be surprised or disheartened. Your corporate prospect is busy being distracted every 3 minutes. It’s nothing personal, they’ve just lost focus. If you really want to get their attention you have to craft your approach carefully. Make it succinct, show there’s a business benefit to them, ensure it’s relevant to their priorities. If it’s your second or third attempt, don’t just forward the last version with an ‘as per my last email’. Making them feel guilty won’t win friends.
Approaches that cut through the constant noise of distractions will be the key to opening the door to further conversations. A healthy dose of empathy will certainly help with nurturing relationships as your corporate prospects are struggling with the same challenges as you.
Our society is in the midst of a crisis of attention and focus. Technology really is contributing to making us stupid- or at least less creative, more short term and less fulfilled. If you want partnerships that sustain and transform, you need to make space for innovation and learn how to compete effectively for your partner’s valuable attention.