The crisis of attention in the workplace

By Scot Herrick | Job Performance

Sep 15

Knowledge workers face a paradox: all of the wonderful tools we use to help make us more productive end up distracting us from getting our work done. And the distractions — the lack of attention — cause us to get out of “flow,” that state where we work in full engagement. Instead, employees get burned out because there is never enough stuff getting done and there is never any satisfaction from doing the work.

Instant Messaging

For example, Instant Messaging is a wonderful tool for instant communication with a coworker or friend. Yet, it distracts you every time it pops up while you are concentrating on getting something else done on your task list. In fact, the person sending the instant message is deliberately interrupting you from whatever you are doing so that person can get something done right now. Their priority overrides yours with the interruption.

I know this. Because I IM people all the time.


Or take meetings. Sure, you’ve heard the hundreds of things wrong with meetings — no agenda’s, no involvement, no assignment of tasks or next steps at the end of the meeting, blah, blah, blah. But what happens when you’re in a meeting and you have no stake in the outcome? You’re there because “we should have a meeting to solve this” and you at least need to hear the outcome. Because — one of those hundreds of things wrong with meetings — no one ever sends out minutes and actions from the meeting!

What happens? Well, a 2014 Forrester Research study on Flow noted:

Off-task meetings ravage the brain’s energy, inducing burnout. Meetings that don’t advance one’s work interfere with flow. Neuroscience research reveals that workers in an off-topic meeting waste energy splitting attention between the work they were doing before and the new information in the meeting. With multiple interruptive meetings sapping their energy, workers enter a vicious cycle of increasing anxiety and unhappiness until they reach burnout.

I don’t know about you, but I routinely multi-task during meetings because the meetings are pointless. It’s exceptionally frustrating because one can’t really concentrate on something important to get done. And we all know, but never acknowledge, that we can’t really multi-task anyway.

Multi-tasking just means we do multiple things poorly.


Interruptions are those times when someone comes by your cube to ask a question, chit-chat, or tell you something. Cubicle dwellers even have a term for it — drive-by’s. Not the same as shooting, of course, but the interruption breaks flow and takes you out of your game. From the same study:

Knowledge workers in the US experience an average of six interruptions per hour in a typical workday. Emails, text messages, and drop-in visitors all compete for their time and take priority, even if only momentarily. These distractions keep them from achieving flow, from making progress toward important work, and from learning.

There are other attention grabbers that take you from your work, but these are big ones. And they happen to you every single day. The more instant messages you get, the more meetings — especially non-engaging ones, and the more drive-by interruptions you have, the less work you get done and the less engaged you feel in the job.

Today, for example, I was in meetings almost the whole day and had a boat load of instant messages and interruptions. By the time my last meeting got done with an hour left in my day, I had enough energy to stare at my computer screen and wonder when I’d ever get anything done at work.

Which is ironic: to get anything done FOR work, it’s almost necessary to not BE at work.

It’s a crisis of attention. And, it’s getting worse.