Here's a challenge for you. Keep your attention span in one place long enough to read to the end of this article without being distracted by anything else. Chances are you may struggle, here's why:
The ability to hold our attention to any one thing at a time is shortening. In fact our average attention span has been reduced by a third in the past 15 years to eight seconds, according to a 2015 study conducted by Microsoft.
A goldfish now has a longer attention span than we do (9 seconds).
A weaker attention span, Microsoft has theorised, may be due to the evolution of mobile internet and the brain's ability to adapt and change itself over time. A recent Deloitte white paper noted that workers now check their cell phones on average 150 times a day. This constant checking in may be due to the brain becoming addicted to new stimuli, in a similar way to gambling slot machines.
Never before has there been such a seductive array of constant distractions, thanks to technology coupled with our increasingly frantic pace of life, and this way of living is fundamentally changing our brains.
We can't put all the blame on technology and modern living, however. The truth, is our brains are hardwired to constantly wander from one thing to the other. It's just what they do. It's always been easy for humans to distract themselves from what's happening around us, getting tangled up in thoughts, plans, day dreams, ruminations.
Think about it -- how often is your body physically doing one thing and your mind another? When was the last time you drank a cup of coffee, got to the bottom and realised you hadn't tasted one drop? Or driven home from work, only to realise you were on autopilot the whole way?
The problem is our constant distraction is getting out of control, and could be damaging our relationships, our happiness and our ability to be successful at work.
What is all this low-grade distraction costing our career?
Have you ever been in a conversation with someone and very quickly picked up on the subtle cues that the person you are speaking with is not fully paying attention? Don't be fooled for one second that people don't notice inattentive listening. It's commonplace nowadays to be in a meeting where half the group have laptops and are answering emails and listening selectively.
If this all sounds all too familiar, you can guarantee it's hurting your career. Why? Because the most valuable skills to possess as we advance into the 21st century are those of deep human interaction, something we are losing the ability to do. Geoff Colvin, in his article Humans are Underrated, paints an incredibly powerful picture of the future of work -- one where many human jobs will be replaced by robots and computers. In that world the skills that will be most sought-after are the ones that robots can't easily replicate: relationship-building, deep listening, empathy, connecting with others, cultural sensitivity, collaborating.
In fact many forward-thinking organisations already know that people who can't connect meaningfully with others are bad for business. At Southwest Airlines any employee who is not interested in positive human interaction is in trouble. What Southwest have figured out is that "employees who engage with humour, energy and generosity are crucial to creating value". Colvin explains "An IT guy who wants to be left alone in his cube is not exactly a surprise. It's practically a stereotype. But it was a big problem at SouthWest.
"Southwest's managers decided that their new IT guy, despite his excellent credentials, had to go. He was dismissed in short order."
Organisations are figuring out that employees who are skilled in connecting with each other to build a positive environment and get work done are valuable assets.
All this mind-wandering also makes us less happy. How can we excel at our chosen career if we are miserable? In 2010 researchers Gilbert and Killingsworth designed an app to track people's happiness (http://www.trackyourhappiness.com). It asked a series of questions to understand what people where doing and what they were thinking. Thousands and thousands of people participated. The findings were clear -- "a human mind is a wandering mind and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind". It didn't matter what your mind was wandering off to, it just mattered that you were not paying full attention to what you were doing.
Gilbert and Killingsworth concluded that "the ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost".
Constant distraction may also be stopping you from doing real work. How anyone can focus on an important project intently with instant messages, emails and texts pinging up every few seconds is completely beyond me. Now more than ever, people expect a faster response to these channels. Our minds are then forced to constantly context-shift. The task or project that deserves your undivided attention gets low-level, shallow focus. You are robbing yourself of an opportunity to immerse yourself completely, which would not only no doubt lead to a better quality outcome but also to a more enjoyable experience.
One solution to all this mind-wandering and distraction is attention-training practices. David Gelles' recent book Mindful Work, talks about the importance of building our concentrative muscles, and cites some great research to support this need.
Athletes have successfully used these techniques for years, and the demand is increasing. The team at Smiling Mind have built a very successful mindfulness app, downloaded by over 350,000 people and counting, and have partnered with Cricket Australia to support athletes at a national and state level to gain mental clarity around their game.
Think of attention-training as a gym workout for the brain; every time you bring your mind back to where the rest of you is, you are flexing your attention muscles.
Failing to connect, constant context shifting and not doing real work, are all the true cost of our wandering minds. The antidote, it appears, is attention-training techniques that allow us to have higher-level awareness of our mind wandering.
Do I still have your attention? Great -- here's your next challenge. Take this knowledge into your next meeting or conversation, stay in the moment through the entire exchange -- and recognise how much more rewarding this can be for you and your colleagues.
Debbie Schultz is Head of Client Partnerships for Career Pathing Software Fuel50.