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Optimizing Performance and Overcoming Digital Distraction with Mindfulness

By Jacqueline Carter, International Partner & North American Director, Potential Project And Marissa Afton, Client Solutions Director, Potential Project

Jacqueline Carter, International Partner & North American Director, Potential Project

Though most of us cannot imagine a working reality without technology, from an HR perspective, we should not underestimate the impact digital tools are having on our minds and our ability to be effective. Research on the nature of our attention indicates that our minds are distracted nearly half our waking hours. In fact, digital distraction has been estimated to cost as much as $997 Bn per year in lost productivity and innovation. Not only that, a recent study by Microsoft indicates that our ability to maintain our attention on one thing at a time is getting less and less – from 12 seconds in 2000 to only 8 seconds 5 years later. The primary culprit? Our always-on, information-laden, digitally overloaded environments.

Today’s organizations exist in an “Attention Economy” where managing and maintaining the attention of leaders and employees has become critical to business success. Consider for yourself how much time is wasted in meetings because people are not fully present. Or how many misunderstandings are created by emails, instant messages or other digital communication that was sent (or received) with a wandering mind.

But there is good news. Attention can be taught.

Mindfulness is a time-tested technique for training the mind. It is a direct neurological intervention that helps strengthen your attentional muscle so you can be more calm, clear and focused, while having the added benefit of enhancing the quality of your present moment experiences. There are numerous studies and much evidence showing the benefits of mindfulness for our health and wellbeing. However, based on our work with forward thinking organizations like Accenture, Microsoft, Cisco, Lego and many more, research shows that mindfulness can also have positive impact on organizational culture and performance.  

"Today’s organizations exist in an “Attention Economy” where managing and maintaining the attention of leaders and employees has become critical to business success"

Mindfulness is comprised of two qualities: focus and awareness. Focus is the ability to concentrate on a task for an extended period of time with ease. Awareness is the ability to make wise choices about where to focus your attention. Optimal individual and organizational effectiveness is achieved when we are simultaneously focused and aware. In this way, mindfulness helps us cut through the onslaught of digital distractions and ensure we maintain focus on the right things at the right time and not get overwhelmed by our technology driven environments.

Marissa Afton, Client Solutions Director, Potential Project

There are a number of ways that organizations can thrive in our attention economy and enhance overall focus and awareness. Here are some strategies we have found to be most effective.

1. Introduce corporate based mindfulness training. Although there are many benefits to practicing mindfulness as an individual, when it is introduced as an organizational initiative being more focused and aware can become part of the culture. The key to successfully introducing a corporate mindfulness program is to ensure it is aligned to business outcomes e.g. enhancing performance, creativity, resilience. In addition, creating spaces where people can practice mindfulness together or individually sends a clear message that the organization values mental fitness- just as having gym memberships shows a value in physical fitness.

2. Create a “no multitasking culture”.  Multitasking is a myth. Extensive research conclusively demonstrates that from a neurological perspective, we’re not capable of focusing on two things at once. Multitasking is really ‘shift tasking’: shifting attention rapidly between two or more things. When we try to multitask we make mistakes, we increase our stress and we end up taking more time and more energy to complete our tasks. One of the simplest ways to enhance individual and organizational focus is by encouraging people to stop multitasking and creating a culture that values people doing one thing at a time well rather than trying to do many things at the same time.

3. Reduce digital distractions. Technology has enabled us to work with global teams and allows real time collaboration and instant feedback. It has also made us more distracted and less present. But we don’t have to throw away technology as a way of supporting better effectiveness in our interactions – we just need to have good ground rules and ensure we use it more consciously. For example, creating a meeting culture where there is a collective agreement that phones and laptops are off or put away unless specifically required. During virtual meetings, agree to keep cameras on to foster communication and decrease the risk of people engaging in other activities. Further, make a commitment to yourself and others to be fully present and not check incoming emails and texts to make the best use out of your and everyone else’s time.

4. Promote and enable digital downtime. Providing employees with permission to “turn off” can be a great way to enhance individual and organizational well-being. When we are always tethered to our devices and always connected to work, we don’t get the critical down time our minds need to relax and refresh. Many organizations say they don’t expect employees to work on holidays or weekends but when leaders are sending messages during these times it can send an unintentional message of an expectation of a response. Setting clear guidelines of the importance of being offline and enjoying precious time off is extremely important in today’s technology-driven environments. Just because we can be online, from anywhere, at any time, doesn’t mean we should. Some forward thinking organizations are even going as far as to turn off email servers on evenings and weekends to enable workers to take a ‘digital detox’. All organizations should set clear boundaries and expectations about when employees can be offline and ensure these are supported and reinforced by leaders.

There is no question that technology has and will enable many great innovations in the way we work. But technology rich environments have downsides – we can become more distracted, more overwhelmed, less productive and less creative unless we arm ourselves with a stronger and more refined attentional muscle. Mindfulness training is a proven technique to enable individuals and organizations to become more focused, effective, calm and clear minded. In this way, being mindful helps us get the most out of our amazing technology as opposed to mindlessly allowing our technology to get the most out of us.

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