Innovating in the Attention Age
We live in the age of distraction. It’s estimated that a knowledge worker on any given day will check their email between 50 to 100 times and be assaulted multiple times per hour by instant messages and application alerts. The cumulative effect is that knowledge workers find it difficult to focus, are increasingly stressed and are experiencing unprecedented levels of anxiety. So what would happen to those same knowledge workers if these distractions unexpectedly disappeared for two consecutive days? Earlier this summer, a natural experiment occurred at my New York City office that allowed me to discover first-hand how myself and my colleagues would respond and cope when faced with the absence of modern communication.
Here’s a recap of those two days:
Monday, 7:30 AM: No emails on a Monday morning? Peculiar. Instead of replying to emails on my train ride, I read a book. A real book. With pages.
Monday, 9:30 AM: A text alert appears on my phone. Corporate email is down. No email. No office communicator messages. No meeting invitations.
Monday, 11:00 AM: Employees gather in the hallway. Confusion sets in as people are forced to communicate with one another without their devices. A few people leave the office with their arms thrust high in the air in submission.
Monday, 3:00 PM: Technology is still non-functional. But a strange phenomenon has occurred. At team meetings, everybody is listening to each other. There are no smart phones or laptops in sight. Discussions delve deeper into the topics than ever before. There’s patient deliberation without interruption.
Monday, 5:00 PM: Employees leave the office. Sporadic conversation breaks out among the departing colleagues, rather than a sea of eyes staring downward at their phones. All around there’s chatter and laughter, louder than ever recorded in our mid-town office.
Tuesday, 9:00 AM: My email inbox remains mysteriously empty. A wave of relief passes over me.
Tuesday, 10:30 AM: A pop-in visitor. Since email wasn’t working, she decided to stop by my office in person and ask for an opinion on a rough idea. We ideate without distraction on her idea for 20 minutes. A great concept emerges.
Tuesday, 1:00 PM: No emails in-sight. And there are rampant reports of employees spending their available time, thinking, reading and nurturing dormant creative thoughts.
Tuesday, 3:00 PM: My email and all other technology are restored. I feel the gravitational pull of my inbox. I scan through and reply to nearly two days’ worth of email for the better part of two hours.
Tuesday, 5:30 PM: I’m back on the train. I take out my phone and hold it helplessly for a moment. And then I power it down. My device lies mercifully at the bottom of my bag. My dog-eared book appears triumphantly in its place.
Wednesday, 9:00 AM: Walking from my office to the coffee machine, I encounter multiple colleagues who unsolicited rave about the blessing of having two email-free days. With a sigh we all retreat back to our offices and our laptops and phones.
Wednesday, 9:15 AM: I open up my email and calendaring software. I make a calendar appointment from 11am to 2pm that reads “Turn Me Off”. I turn on my out-of-office message reply and type out the following, “I am here today in the office. However, I will be reading, thinking and innovating without the distraction of email. If you need to reach me, I invite you to come and visit my office for a few moments of real human interaction and mental solitude.”
Now here's a challenge for you:
Pick a day where you aren't expecting a frenetic full day sprint. Select a 3 hour window of time (usually 11am - 2pm is a safe bet) and set your "Out of Office" reminder with a creative message. Lock your office door. Go hide in a nearby coffee shop. Give your phone the royal spa treatment and lock it away in safe hiding place, away from urgent text messages or emails. But whatever you do safeguard those 3 hours and allow your mind to wander. Keep notes of observations. And please share with your comments.