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Don’t become a ‘tool of your tool’: an attention primer


NIAGARA FALLS, Ont.–We’re asked to process three times the amount of information we were in 1960, but with less space to think and less time to focus. This is leading to some serious loss of productivity in the workplace, and an overall inability to concentrate on the task at hand, said Curt Steinhorst, a consultant at the Promentum Group, who addressed attendees of the Canada Logistics Conference 2015 Monday.

Steinhorst speaks to audiences about strategic communication in an age of distraction, and is a certified speaker at the Center for Generational Kinetics.

The way we relate to technology, he said, is not best summarized as a generational issue. The best way is to think of it in two categories. “Digital natives” are those born connected to technology, and the rest of us, “digital immigrants”, are born with it but have adapted to it over the years.

All of us are affected by the technology, the connection to the digital. It’s the single biggest issue hampering the workforce today, Steinhorst said, and it’s important to not become a ‘tool of your tool’.

The core issue is access to technology-you can talk to anyone, anyplace, at any time.

“Research is showing we’re moving further away from in-person communication and further toward digital communication,” Steinhorst said. He then asked the audience to perform an exercise on “microfacial expression”, pairing people up and asking them to give each other seven seconds of eye contact without reacting to each other-a difficult task as the audience then proved.

The idea is that smiles and eye contact release dopamine. Humans are wired to experience these mirror neurons-the expression of emotional empathy.

“When we move to digital communication we exchange emotional empathy for cognitive empathy-and this is much harder on the brain. This is why e-mail that is snarky and rude is easier at night than in the morning,” he said.

Steinhorst said digital natives are “less capable in their emotional experiences. It’s easier to send a message via digital because we have complete control over it. Access has also changed how we send and receive information. You have a full array of knowledge available to you in your pocket. It changes authority-we think everything is free in terms of information-so we all have the ‘knowledge’ and we can all exchange opinions. Access and wiring causes something very interesting-it creates a new situation that we’ve never seen before: overload. You’re allowed to connect to everything and everything is coming to you,” he said.

We are wired to want to send and receive information and we get a high over it.  We as humans are wired to seek out new and novel stimulus, to determine threat or opportunity.

“It means we were not made to sit and stare at a screen all day. And that intermittent reinforcement- the rare e-mail that is really great news is what makes us want to come back to those sources. The overload causes us to divide our attention. But we are not wired to multitask. In fact the more you do it the worse you get at it, particularly when it’s switch tasking-you’re sending an e-mail while you’re on a conference call, texting at the same time-this is where we slow down,” said Steinhorst.

He said that we have in many ways lost the ability to control our own attention. The average employee works three minutes at a time before getting distracted, taking some 23 minutes to get back to the task afterward. And these are self-distractions that signal a lack of active engagement in our work.

But what we pay attention to is foundational to the experience that we have.  It’s a function of four factors: environment, energy, (you can block out the loud talker in the morning when you’ve had a good sleep), experiences, and emotion (the more emotionally engaged we are).

The more words we put in something the less energy we have to read it. So Steinhorst advocates, when we’re talking to clients or customers, shortening the message as much as possible. Make it as visual as possible, eliminate the steps, and become the trusted expert.

“The other side of the customer is you have to startle them. Recognize the power and awakening effect of emotional connection and vulnerability. Whoever is in charge dictates the medium of conversation,” he said.

A communication contract within the organization can also go a long way.

“What are the communication rules we want to use? If you’re the boss, you decide certain rules, and ask the team to create the ones that will govern the team. The categories can be rules of using devices. Even though digital natives want to be on their devices, they get offended when their colleagues don’t get their work done when they’re on their devices,” he said,

Other categories could be how to communicate during meetings, and conflict resolution. For example, if an email is interpreted as divisive, you have to go talk to the person.

“What is the rule of time-response time, for example? When you have an organization that is always available,  when do you have to respond? If you have a rush-how quickly do you respond? When are people allowed to be off? Use codes if you need them to respond immediately.  Every time you do the always on, always off stuff, you hinder your ability to perform the mental tasks that define who you are,” Steinhorst said.

If you want to be good at your job you have to get out of the noise and enter what he calls “cave time”.

This is when we are unreachable for scheduled time, and when we are stationary, so we can focus on prioritizing.

Be fully unreachable by turning off the Internet, using “freedom”, or limiting the sites you go to. Close the door to your office. Put a sign on the door.

“Nobody likes to focus above the noise, but we do it because it’s good for us.  Schedule your cave time, so you know it’s coming. A lot of us have to change our habits-i.e. you come into your workplace, and we think of it as the place where we have to check something else. Some of us need to pick a place where the only thing we do is work. That way you will start working for yourself not against yourself,” he said.

Prioritize. Differentiate between the least important things, and the most important things.

Assign the two to three “elephants” critical for moving the organization forward.

The “rabbits” have to get done, but they can be done when you have less energy.

“Now, you feel like you’ve accomplished something.  There will always be more things for you to do than you can do in a day.  They form the basis of your priority list the next day,” Steinhorst said.