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Distraction & attention - lessons in focus from history


Roman statue depicting focused attention

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that distraction is a new problem.


Articles on the rapid pace and constant change of the modern world abound. Our ability to communicate with anyone, anywhere in the world, instantly, has made the world significantly smaller and seemingly busier. The advent of AI and its impact has been stark. If the thing that might distract and grab our attention doesn’t exist in reality (a million-to-one-basketball shot, our dream dating match, a political scandal or Johnny Cash singing Taylor Swift’s Blank Space), AI can simply create it and present it to us as real.


Decisions in work are made rapidly over emails, WhatsApps, Teams, voice notes, Zooms, phone calls and on occasion, in face-to-face meetings. From finance to sports to pet care, every industry uses every app to urge us not to miss out on their latest, crucial opportunities.


Between our phones, our laptops and our brains, there are more tabs open and notifications to read than we can ever keep up with.Within this context, surely it’s inarguable that “we’ve never been as busy” and “the pace of change has never been greater”.


These were phrases I was using in the mid-2000s. They were phrases I heard prior to entering the world of work. They are phrases that tend to open every technology-related conversation between businesses.


Life has a habit of feeling overwhelming whenever you examine it closely. If it’s happening to you, then of course it can all feel urgent. But I’m not certain that my parents believe that the world is more fast-paced than it was. Sure, they have smartphones, but I’d warrant that their speed of life is more sedate now than when they were balancing jobs, caring for their young kids and paying off their mortgage.  Technology may have advanced, but whilst they find themselves in a different time, it’s also a different time of life. Their world is far calmer than mine - they are just far less prone to writing articles on the pace of change and the busyness of day-to-day life.


I might be distracted, bombarded and struggle to focus…but is that a particularly modern phenomenon? Is it an inevitable symptom of our modern society? Or as a species, have we always been prone to feeling this way?


Dwindling attention-spans


Here’s a typical experience: You open your inbox to send an email to a client, but before you do so, you notice a new message from LinkedIn, notifying you that someone has commented on your post from last week.  So you click on that to investigate, only to find there are 15 notifications waiting for you, and a connection request.  After clicking on the connection request and looking through the sender’s profile for a couple of minutes, you turn your attention to the 15 notifications.  You’re halfway through catching up on these when you remember this isn’t what you’re supposed to be doing, and you go back to your inbox to try to email your client again.


These interruptions all stem from relatively recent innovations. Logic follows that our distracted natures are due to the proliferation of these attention-sapping platforms. In his book Stolen Focus, Johaan Hari notes the impact that Twitter had on reducing our attention-spans:


“In 2013 a topic would remain in the top 50 discussed subjects for 175 hours on average. By 2016 this dropped to 11.9 hours.”


It’s a rapid decline. Whilst it suggests a more fleeting engagement with the issues of the day in recent years, we are only relying on one area of measurement. A researcher called Professor Sune Lehmann wanted to understand if “shrinking attention” was solely a modern phenomenon. He led a study that analysed various sources of data from 1880 onwards, such as Twitter, Google, Reddit, and Google Books, to measure how long people talk about a topic before they lose interest and move on to the next one. Similar to the Twitter methodology, they could detect new phrases and topics, then analyse how long they were discussed for and how quickly they disappeared from language. They found that for each decade that passed, topics became increasingly ephemeral and transient. As time went on, each topic left a more fleeting footprint. Ultimately, our attention has been shrinking consistently over the past 140 years as the ‘pace of change’ has ramped up.


Our propensity for distraction hasn’t just been something that entered our world since the adoption of smartphones or even the advent of the internet. It’s been the case for our entire lives, and it reaches much further back into history. It’s been a constant human and historical struggle to get our brains to focus on the things that matter most to us. This issue even preoccupied the Romans.


“Every hour of the day give vigorous attention, as a Roman and as a man, to the performance of the task in hand with precise analysis, with unaffected dignity, with human sympathy, with dispassionate justice - and to vacating your mind from all its other thoughts.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Analysis. Dignity. Sympathy. Justice. These aims would not look out of place on many modern corporate mission statements. However, the desire to vacate our minds is something that feels quite uncomfortable in a world when “not doing” is perceived to be “shirking”. Yet the ability to “vacate our minds from all other thoughts” to achieve important things is precisely the aim of contemporary preoccupations such as breathwork, meditation and focused work.  Marcus Aurelius, it seems, would not have advocated having phones on desks during meetings.


Valuing our attention


Modern technology companies understand the value and scarcity of human attention. We give it away freely, they build empires with it. We need to value our attention. This doesn’t come easily, especially within a demanding work environment. We need to create space in order to think and make meaningful progress. This is true now, it was true thousands of years ago when Macus Aurelius shared his wisdom:


“Do externals distract you? Then give yourself the space to learn some further good lesson, and stop your wandering.” 

“Externals” will always distract us. They did 2,000 years ago. They did 200 years ago. They are present now. Yet there is some comfort in the knowledge that these challenges are not unique or new. Of course, the modern world is plagued with distractions. Today’s ‘externals’ are more invasive and ever-present than previous generations ever had to deal with.  But the battle to focus, avoid distraction and prioritise effectively is one we’ve been fighting for generations as we seek to deploy our brains to think, reason, imagine and create.


After all, abstract thinking, reading, conceptualising, creating…these work behaviours require a lot of energy, and are not the hunter-gatherer traits that have been honed through generations of evolution.  It’s little wonder that prolonged concentration can be a struggle, that avoiding distraction and staying focused is effortful.  It’s not really what we’ve been built for across much of our history.  In that context, we’re not much different from the Romans in facing the challenges of the modern world.


Instead of looking to the future and technology to solve what seems an exclusively modern problem, some of the most effective lessons about distraction and regaining attention lie in a book written by a Roman Emperor approximately 2,000 years ago.

What was true then remains true now.

What we pay attention to is what we do.

And what we do is who we are.


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Sustainable Excellence


What do you put in place to help you manage your attention and reduce unnecessary noise in order to make progress on the things that matter most?


4and20Million help businesses of all shapes and sizes tackle this complex question via Sustainable Excellence - a learning and development programme that boosts productivity and performance, enhances communication whilst reducing stress, anxiety and burnout.

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