Managing the Distraction-Focus Paradox
Curiosity and concentration are often at odds — but they needn’t be.
In the time you’ve set aside to read this article, you’re likely to check your phone. You’ll probably see notifications for emails or text messages pop up on your lock screen. You won’t resist. Once you’ve started thumbing through your apps, you’ll check Twitter, too. If you use Twitter as your media feed, you may click through to an article about blockchain or vacations in Barbados. I’ll be lucky if you make it back here.
Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, would have you believe that your behavior is a serious problem, that the ephemera of the internet are hijacking your ability to concentrate and think.1 I disagree — or rather, I’d argue that, in today’s workplace, the seductive clamor of the web is a reality from which there’s no retreat. In the age of big data and ever-more-powerful processors, we must absorb more data at faster speeds. Those who’ll succeed in this distraction-filled world as thinkers, managers, and innovators will need to combine two seemingly opposing traits. They must be able to absorb diverse information from a wealth of sources, and they must be able to focus intensely. I call this the distraction-focus paradox. While these two qualities seem contradictory, together they make up the skill set for managing your most valuable personal resource — your attention — in a hyper-connected age.
Yes, these abilities have always been important — but their combination will become more so in the coming years, as social media and mobile computing continue to advance. (See “Skill Set for a Connected World,” which presents the net effect of differing combinations of these essential skills.)
Knowledge workers need diverse information. Research has repeatedly shown that diversity in mental models — that is, how you interpret and see problems — leads to better problem-solving and more innovation.2 That’s a theme that courses through Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics, the memoir of Richard Thaler, the Charles R. Walgreen Distinguished Service Professor of Behavioral Science and Economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and the 2017 winner of the Nobel Prize in economics.
1. N.G. Carr, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010).
2. S.E. Page, “The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).
3. R.H. Thaler, “Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics” (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2016).
4. P.E. Tetlock and D. Gardner, “Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction” (London: Penguin Random House, 2015).
5. A. Pentland, “Social Physics: How Social Networks Can Make Us Smarter” (New York: Penguin Press, 2014).
6. E. Pariser, “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You” (New York: The Penguin Press, 2011); and E. Zuckerman, “Digital Cosmopolitans: Why We Think the Internet Connects Us, Why It Doesn’t, and How to Rewire It” (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2013).
7. J. Diamond, “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997).
8. P.A. Gloor and S.M. Cooper, “The New Principles of a Swarm Business,” MIT Sloan Management Review 48, no. 3 (spring 2007): 81-84; and S. Parise, E. Whelan, and S. Todd, “How Twitter Users Can Generate Better Ideas,” MIT Sloan Management Review 56, no. 4 (summer 2015): 21-25.
9. C. Newport, “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World” (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016).
10. S. Pillay, “Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus,” Harvard Business Review, May 12, 2017, https://hbr.org.
11. J. Coleman, “The Best Strategic Leaders Balance Agility and Consistency,” Harvard Business Review, Jan. 4, 2017, https://hbr.org. Although the two arguments are related, focus in attention is not necessarily the same as consistency, and agility is not necessarily the same as distraction. For instance, being consistent in action can be a rather mindless endeavor that does not necessarily need focus in attention. And being agile can necessitate very high focus of attention, making the interplay intricate. Moreover, this aspect is very closely related to “ambidexterity.” See C.A. O’Reilly III and M.L. Tushman, “Organizational Ambidexterity in Action: How Managers Explore and Exploit,” California Management Review 53, no. 4 (August 2011): 5-22.
12. M.T. Hansen, “IDEO CEO Tim Brown: T-Shaped Stars: The Backbone of IDEO’s Collaborative Culture,” Chief Executive, Jan. 21, 2010, https://chiefexecutive.net.
13. R.A. Guth, “In Secret Hideaway, Bill Gates Ponders Microsoft’s Future,” The Wall Street Journal, March 28, 2005.
14. P. Galanes, “The Mind Meld of Bill Gates and Steven Pinker,” The New York Times, Jan. 27, 2018; and B. Gates, GatesNotes (blog), www.gatesnotes.com.
15. “The Buffett Formula: Going to Bed Smarter Than You Woke Up,” Farnam Street (blog), sponsored by Royce & Assoc., May 2013, www.fs.blog.
16. Many of the practical solutions for overcoming the distraction-focus paradox (dealing with attention) relate to better balancing agility and consistency. See Coleman, “The Best Strategic Leaders.”