The first time Pat and I started thinking about ’attention hygiene’ was in March 2018. We were discussing our learning goals for the year and Pat mentioned a frustration that he was finding it increasingly hard to focus; he felt perpetually distracted.
This kickstarted a conversation about mindfulness practice and its benefits for enhanced creative thinking, something we know will be an essential human skill in the future of work. We talked about how to create ’better’ work habits, and then promptly changed the subject.
Some months later, I started reading The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. I was stunned by his observation in the opening pages of the book:
"I’m not thinking the way I used to think... I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article... That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose my thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text..."
I couldn’t believe it; it was as if Carr had been listening in on our earlier conversation. The book was illuminating, and in so many ways helped me understand that the feeling of constant distraction wasn’t a failing of the middle-aged mind, but rather a by-product of the internet and the way it has pervaded our human environment to become a permanent feature via the ubiquitous nature of our ’always-on’ devices. I was keen to find out more.
We’re at a fascinating crossroads in human history. In 29 short years, the internet has gone from the world-wide-web concept imagined by Sir Tim Berners Lee, to the single most used tool that helps us navigate our daily lives. According to a Daily Telegraph article
published in August 2018, the average UK person spends 24 hours online per week, with one in five adults spending more than 40 hours a week surfing the internet. Such vast access is undoubtedly enabled by the proliferation of smart devices and high-speed broadband, but its staggering to think that we are, as a population, typically spending more than half the time we would usually spend at work, scrolling through newsfeeds, social media and whatever else takes our fancy.
There’s a reason however why we’re spending so much time online. The design methodology behind the most popular online platforms, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat et al, is starting to be made public by those who, involved in the early years of development, are now questioning the moral integrity of the code they originally wrote. It’s an alarming story.
Lured by the potential of digital advertising revenues, algorithm designers have spent the last 15 years building an experience specifically intended to have us spend as much of our time online as possible. The more time we spend online, the easier it becomes for technology platforms to learn our habits and behaviours. The more that’s known about the way we behave, the easier it becomes to ’micro’-target us, with adverts tailored towards the very things our web surfing behaviour suggest we will like. More recently, this has taken an ominous twist with ongoing revelations about Facebook, in particular, being used as a vehicle to influence our core value systems and political beliefs. We’re learning, in real-time, how this has played out both across the UK in the Brexit Referendum vote, and in the 2016 US presidential election. The voting systems of other countries have also been compromised, but as yet, with less alarming outcomes.
As James Williams has written in his 2018 book Stand Out of Our Light:
"There are literally billions of dollars being spent to figure out how to get you to look at one thing over another; to buy one thing over another; to care about one thing over another. This is literally the design purpose of many of the technologies you trust to guide your life every day."
The size and scope of the attention economy cannot be understated; it is literally jaw-dropping. Online advertising is already one of the largest segments of the global economy, and forecasters anticipate further huge growth by the early-mid 2020s. The online advertising market has been valued at a compound annual growth rate of approximately 33% between now and 2023, when it is forecast it will be worth 21.6 billion US dollars.
Consider another data point from Williams, who, as a former software design engineer for Google, we reason is better placed than many to comment:
"Each day, the Android mobile operating system alone sends over eleven billion notifications to more than one billion users."
Marry this with a data point from Adam Alter’s 2017 book Irresistible:
"70 percent of office emails are read within six seconds of arriving...This is hugely disruptive: by one estimate, it takes up to twenty-five minutes to become re-immersed in an interrupted task."
It turns out that our human brains are hardwired for distraction. A 2007 scientific report
revealed that our brains respond faster to distraction than they do to the sustained effort of paying attention. This is the basis upon which the various online platforms that consume so much of our time and attention develop new products, services and features.
I don’t know about you, but just becoming aware of this premise made me feel a) vindicated, in so far as I finally understood why I was perpetually struggling to focus on tasks through to fruition, and b) enraged; bluntly - I felt as if I’d been hoodwinked, and as if my own personal value system had somehow been compromised.
It strikes us as (worryingly) paradoxical that, at the precise moment in human history where we need our wits about us most, when the essential skills of the 21st Century will be embedded in an ability to innovate and think critically, most of us are sleep-walking through life, aware at some visceral level that something isn’t quite right, but yet unable to put our finger on it. If we wanted to go conspiracy theory, we might argue that the very technocrats who are manipulating our attention and focus for financial gain, are the same elite few who are now telling us that our future lives will be work-less, as their own technology will automate all key aspects of our commercial environments.
Creating a better and more human-centric future of work will involve significant reflection, critical thinking and an abundance of focus; designing and implementing fluid workforces that successfully leverage competitive advantage will require considerable self-discipline, particularly in the area of ’attention hygiene’. We’ll need this both for ourselves, as change-makers, and also for those whose lives we are working to improve for the better.
This isn’t an easy path. When I deleted Facebook last year, I was surprised to experience, alongside a sense of relief (that I was finally free of the increasingly narrow algorithmic echo-chambers), a parallel sense of bewilderment. Frankly, it took at least a fortnight for my brain to adapt, and in the meantime, I felt as if I was missing something intrinsic - such was the extent to which mindless scrolling through endless feeds of irrelevant status updates had become ingrained in my life.
I recently read Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss. The book is a collection of the habits and routines of some of the most successful people in the world, across sport, business, finance and other domains. What I felt was most striking was the extent to which so many high-performing individuals have made meditative practice part of their daily routine. It seems that while mindfulness and meditation are being widely regaled for the therapeutic calm they bring to the busyness of 21st Century living, there’s a deeper (and certainly more relevant to this discussion) benefit.
In his 2014 bestseller Focus Daniel Goleman writes:
"It takes meta-cognition - in this case, awareness of our lack of awareness - to bring to light what the group has buried in a grave of indifference or suppression. Clarity begins with realising what we do not notice - and don’t notice that we don’t notice."
Preparing for, and adapting to, a very different future of work will take an abundance of focus, reflective thought and critical analysis. We cannot possibly adapt to a new way of doing and being in the world when we are only half-focused on what’s at stake.
The role of Working the Future, and indeed, of others like us who recognise the opportunity for designing a more inclusive and balanced work future, is to raise awareness and help others navigate their way through complex change. We can’t do this with our eyes half closed.
"Being in survival mode narrows our focus," writes Goleman in Focus. With so many of our societal norms currently in freefall, the common human response is that of survival mode, focusing only on what’s important right now. Those of us who want to make a difference and create a better future of work, must keep paying attention to paying attention, and in spite of their apparent size and scope, not allow the digital giants to get the better of us. There is important work to be done.
1. Carr, N (2010). The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the way we Think, Read and Remember. London: Atlantic Books
2. Williams, J. (2018). Stand out of our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
3. Alter, A. (2017). Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. New York: Penguin Random House
4. Goleman, D. (2013). Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. London: Bloomsbury
5. Ferriss, T. (2016). Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines and Habits of Billionaires, Icons and World-Class Performers. London: Penguin Random House
6. Global online advertising market value and forecast growth stats - reportsherald.com, January 2019