I’m well used to being reminded that as a man I can’t multi-task. I’m not wholly in agreement but if you want to argue the toss then perhaps take a read of this and this. I’ll also see if I can’t find a friendly neuroscientist to give a more up to date view on brain function and multitasking. Anyway, this post is not about multitasking…
Feeling the Attention
If you’ve got kids you’ll know that as they get older, you have to pay a much deeper kind of attention to understand what is happening with them. It’s only by sitting with them and talking with our whole attention that the conversation reveals the depth of joys or travails they are experiencing. It’s developmental and affirming. When we don’t give that attention, not only do we lose the depth of dialogue, our kids are much less likely to raise things that are troubling them. It’s when the trouble starts.
In many respects, exactly the same is true in organisations. It’s only when we give people our full attention that we understand (& they understand) their issues & perspectives. We might call it engagement, or coaching, or a 1-to-1 meeting… whatever guise it takes, giving our full attention is supportive, developmental and affirming.
We can feel someone’s full attention when we have it. When we don’t we spot it straight away. There’s often an emotional feeling that comes with it. So it’s easy perhaps to see attention as something you give or do not give. We often talk in those terms don’t we?
I’m starting to see something else – a dilution in the conscious attention that we give at certain times…An Example
If you’re active on Twitter, you may well have been at a conference or other such event and have tweeted news, views, comments, etc. I’ve even sat in small groups at unconferences and had 2-3 people tweet during our group conversation. It can be a great way of sharing learning & perspectives.
As an example, here’s a Storify sharing the learning from a very engaging learning event with a group of around 20 people. You can see how over the space of around 4hrs, in all our enthusiasm, we managed to write & share quite a lot! Like the event, the technology and the sharing of learning was excellent. Nobody seemed to mind. Many outside the room seemed to appreciate the sharing.
However, each & every time one of us tweeted we diluted the attention to our immediate surroundings – we “checked out” for a moment. Our focus shifted from aural/verbal engagement inside the room to reading/writing broadcasts to an audience both inside & outside of the room.
As a conscious decision perhaps it is perfectly OK to do this. As an unconscious decision we can create unintended consequences from attention dilution.
This isn’t about Social Media
It’s easy to blame social media but it’s not a new phenomena is it…
- Ever been in meetings where people are using their Blackberry surreptitiously under the table?
- Ever struggled to have a conversation with someone who’s in the middle of doing something else?
- Ever tried to juggle a load of things to do without writing them down and putting them into order?
In a more diverse and connected world, I think more than ever we need to be conscious of when to give our attention, when to deliberately dilute our attention and when not to give our attention at all.
This requires us to understand our primary audience and give them our full attention for an appropriate amount of time. To pay attention to our responsibilities, to ourselves and to others. To understand and recognise when we are diluting our attention. To understand the impact of our attention giving.
Sometimes, diluting our attention might be a great way to create breadth of engagement. Other times we may be sitting on the sofa tweeting and realise that it’s presence that matters as our partner throws the cushion at our head… you’ve been warned!Post script Having written this piece I’ve just checked on Google and there’s already a related blog article on “Attention dilution disorder”. I have to say I don’t see Attention Dilution as a disorder, as though it’s something to be cured. Likewise, as much as I appreciate mindful practices, I don’t think we all need to meditate to prevent attention dilution. Each to their own…
Is this all part of having too many opportunities to communicate, and being subjected to too much stress on the need for communication? We are forever being reminded of how important it is to “collaborate” – some balance may be needed with a stress upon the need to concentrate. It seems to get ever more difficult.
Spot on Neil. Personally, I think there are times when we need to “throw the net wide” and perhaps deliberately dilute our attention. Then there are times when we need to focus our attention and deliberately exclude what are in fact distractions. The trouble is that some of these distractions can be seen as very alluring – the “shiny-shiny” @robjones_tring has talked about in L&D.
I wonder if what we’re looking at is a new awareness or skill perhaps on how/where to concentrate our attention? Or perhaps it’s a journey we each take and the challenge is finding others who can inform our learning?
Interesting, David. I frequently have my twitter backchannel running whilst I work, seeing comments pop up in the corner of my screen. When something attacts my attention, I welcome the ‘distraction’ (as indeed, I found myself reading your blog right now). It keeps me engaged and enthused, particularly if the work in hand may not be the most inspiring. I can choose when to switch it off as well! Where I do have an issue with ‘attention dilution’ is people on the move, oblivious to others around them, focussed only on their handsets. They automatically slow down on the stairs or in the general ‘traffic flow’ if we’re going in the same direction (tube, station, stairways, pavements, etc), or they inexorably bear down on one if coming from opposite directions. I tend not to get out of their way, until they are forced to notice me and take the appropriate avoiding action – starting with looking where they’re going! Rant over! I thank you.
Rants always welcome Niall! What’s curious is how exactly the same behaviours are taking place but it’s the impact on another party which can be beneficial or can cause an issue. If you are diluting your own attention, when/how do you know the effect or impact it’s having on others?
Happy 100th post. This is kinda tangential but this very short talk on listening better is a) good and b) a little relevant and c) short (did I already say that? 😉
Thanks Doug! Love the quote from Julian in that Ted talk “listen consciously in order to live fully”. When he talks about paying attention to the various channels (the mixer) I wonder if that is how we can pay attention to the dilution effects and manage them appropriately?
Should I be concerned that I listened to this TED talk while simultaneously trying to read another blog and eat my lunch? (no, it didn’t work so well)
Many happy blog returns David.
Excellent points. I think that attention is so so important in showing other people that we value them. Turning attention or eye contact away sends an instant message: ‘you are not important to me’, or ‘what you are saying is not of interest/value to me’. And focusing our minds on one thing in front of us is also vital for good quality thinking and decision making.
Nancy Kline’s book, Time to Think, was a big wake up call for me. I read it years ago, and her points about paying attention struck a chord.
Thanks Flora! Had not thought of “Time to Think” but it’s a great reference to bring in here – it was very formative for me also.
In that vein, I wonder if anyone reading this would for example tweet less when in company now?
I certainly recognise the ‘attention dilution’ issue. As someone who engages fairly comprehensively with social media and all the enormous benefits it brings I do find that when things get a little boring – like Niall’s work day – I turn to my mobile devices to find something more interesting/inspiring. At ‘live events’ this can really alter the dynamic and we still haven’t really worked out how to manage the front and back channels effectively.
Neil’s comment though sparked off a thought around having to balance communication, collaboration and concentration. Suddenly I feel a three circles venn diagram coming on and maybe even a blog – but first back to the client project I am supposed to be working on (A Beginner’s Guide to Social Media for Business) 😉
Hi John – appreciate the comments. I’m intrigued by the deliberate use of attention dilution to either “throw the net wide” or perhaps just to let go and take a break. I think we’re already doing this but perhaps not always deliberately i.e. sometimes without thought.
The venn diagram has something in it. To me, the intersections conjured up Broad Learning (communication + collaboration), Focussed Learning (communication + concentration), Connected Learning (collaboration + concentration). I wondered if the intersection of all three is true Social Learning? If it is then perhaps it shows how often times we’re not actually engaging in Social Learning but something else… Looking forward to that blog!
Oh…David I feel we are onto something here…I like the naming of the overlaps. But that’s enough inspiration for now…..back to my boring (sorry exciting) storyboard for a well know computer manufacturer 😉
Great example of the positive effects of attention dilution!
Hi David. Thank you for this thought-provoking piece, which certainly contains a notable ‘ouch’ for me. My experience is that although at one level this seems like an age-old dilemma, there is something about screens that seems to have the capacity to take me away from the ‘here and now’ more completely than any other form of distraction. I also notice it with my eleven-year-old. With his iPod in his hand, it’s as if he’s not here with me any more. And the really pernicious thing is that when I’m the one disappearing, I don’t notice it’s happening. Definitely something to try and develop my choice muscle over.
I don’t know if you’ve come across Howard Rheingold’s book ‘Net Smart’. It speaks, in part, to this very issue and he advocates the development of a kind of 21st century mindfulness as a partial response. Well worth a look.
Martin – thanks for calling by & commenting – glad the post resonated!
Your use of the word “pernicious” strikes a chord with me… I’ve encountered my kids commenting on how all Dad does is hang out on twitter. Hand on heart it’s not true (honest!) yet there’s obviously been a harmful impact at some stage when I’ve not given them my full attention. It’s that unconscious disengagement with those around you whilst engaged with others who are “in the screen”…
Appreciate the book recommendation – will look it up. You’ve also reminded me to re-read The Activity Illusion (Ian Price) as I recall there are parallels in there too.
Food for thought here David.
I stopped multi tasking some years ago and pleased to see that there is growing evidence to show that this is not best practice. I find setting aside small pockets of time and sticking to it helps – bit like checking my emails – 3 times a day 10 – 15 minutes and the same with Twitter, Linkedin..
There seems be a common thread that when tasks are perhaps boring or unstimulating, attention is lost in pursuit of something more interesting – and am guilty of that. Though would start to worry if this is happening a lot which would indicate that I am in a role / doing a job that is not the right one for me.
So far have not tweeted when in conversation, listening, in the company of others, watching TV…. years of trying to ‘be in moment’, ‘the here and now’, being mindful, giving your full attention…has embedded. And I am sure that if I ever did my children will pull me up on it !
Vera – check out my last comment to Martin… my kids have already pulled me up on it!!!
My growing feeling is that it’s useful and important to utilise a range of attention giving. I suspect it’s actually useful to not give your attention or to dilute it, perhaps just as much as being in the moment. The discovery is in appreciating what is most appropriate & when…
Actually, it reminds me some people’s definition of coaching as only ever being between two people – add more people and it’s no longer coaching. Perhaps there’s a great deal of merit in this view point if taken from the perspective of attention giving. Add more people and your attention must dilute…
Following up from my earlier post, thought I would share this article which picks up some of the points mentioned, including being present, leading by example, a great Dilbert cartoon….
Nice blog; nice comments from other bloggers. Like Niall, I have twitter on as a backchannel. Love it. I get most inspired by stuff you lot put out there. Like Flora, love Time To Think. I am easily distracted but I like that.
Let’s face it though, people have zoned out for eons. Daydreaming, TV, attractive passer-by, cute puppy whatever. We’re tuned into all sorts. I don’t take others zoning out as an insult. Life’s too short – so zone ’em back in by being more interesting maybe?
Social Media zoning has brought it – zoning out – to prominence more – sure. It’s not going to get any better sooner though. Those crazy kids who are Facebooking all the time will be multi connected at all times – face-to-face and digitally and will flip in and out of the 2 or 3 or 4. E.g. Skype/Facetime; tweeting; iM’ing and chatting kind of all-at-once.
I think we should get used to it rather than frown upon the audacity of non-immersion in the physical here and now in social scenarios.
Coaching; serious chat, being upset – sure that overrides all other distractions. Idle day-to-day banter or even chucking ideas around at a conference? Zone in and out all you like I say.
Attention is (IMHO) part courteousy; part curiosity; part demonstrating care/value; and part conscious choice – e.g. do I NEED to pay attention?
It’s all about the context though as to whether zoning out is an affront or acceptable. I think we’d best get used to “pulsing attention”; in totally; out a bit; in again; out a lot; in a bit; – do the hokey cokey and you send a tweet, that’s what it’s all about.
Cheers for adding further Perry.
The unintended consequence of using your attention unconsciously can lead to a nice daydream or a pillow in the head… I think where my mind has journeyed to is around using attention consciously – “pulsing attention” captures that nicely.
Love the hokey cokey analogy!
Neil Usher (@workessence) shared the following on Twitter this morning and I think it’s worthy of reflection!