With so much of work being done online nowadays, especially since the shift to remote and hybrid work styles, a big concern for many teams is attention. For individual team members, it’s how to focus on work in an online and/or remote environment that has so many distractions. For teams, it’s how to set clear goals and put teams on a common track when everyone is in their different bubbles.
Over the weekend, I listened to a podcast from the Ezra Klein Show with Johann Hari, where they discussed attention and how it has been affected by changes in technology. The interview was really interesting, and they touched on issues, like how modern work styles emphasize 24/7 connectivity and multitasking, which I found particularly relevant to remote and hybrid teams.
While a lot of the show was about individual behavior–how we all deal with attention issues and how we can learn to focus more–they did touch on some structural and community-based approaches. How can we, together, reorganize things so that people can have the space to think and focus on what’s most important.
And so that’s what I really want to focus on in this blog post. How teams can utilize this information about attention and technology to work together to shape a better environment. One that enables teams and individuals to meet their goals and coalesce around a unified sense of purpose.
Looking at the bigger picture of attention and focus
One of the most fascinating things that I learned from the podcast was the notion that there are really a lot of different levels of attention. When we think and talk about paying attention, we tend to only look at what we should be doing in the moment– our tasks and responsibilities, our reading or research, that we need to do right now–and how distractions limit our ability to do them.
However, there are other levels of our lives that we need time to focus on too. Our long-term goals, for example, or how to find a new direction when we get lost or want to skill up.
Johann Hari cites former tech-insider turned author James Williams’ ideas about different levels of attention. In his book, Stand Out of Our Light, Williams breaks attention down into three categories, or “lights”:
- Spotlight: This is what you’re focused on doing at the moment. Imagine a big spotlight trained on the activity that you want to do right now and that you want to try to focus on. It’s probably what most people think of when they think about focusing.
- Starlight: This represents your focus on longer-term goals or higher aspirations. Think of riding in a ship and being “guided by the light of the stars”. This kind of attention enables you to move towards where you want to go in your life.
- Daylight: This represents your general awareness of the world and yourself–based on reason, intellect, knowledge, metacognition, etc. It’s broad and all around you, like daylight, and it helps you figure out what you want to focus on, and which direction you want to go, in the first place.
When we limit our view of attention to just thinking about tasks, we lose out on thinking about these other levels of attention, like our goals and gaining new knowledge to make better decisions. And because of how we view productivity in our society, sometimes focusing energy on these other levels seems like “a waste of time”.
However, overlooking starlight and daylight attention can be detrimental. Not having goals can be demotivating. Not having the awareness to make new goals in the first place can lead to feeling completely lost and apathetic.
So, by becoming more aware about how our starlight and daylight attention can get distracted too, we can have a clearer and broader view about attention and how distractions impact various levels of our lives. Sometimes we’re not just distracted from getting things done, but from answering longer-term questions. And sometimes we can even distract ourselves with various short-term tasks that feel “productive”.
Levels of attention on teams
We can easily relate these concepts to the way that groups, and especially teams, function.
So spotlight attention is the daily tasks and responsibilities of the team members. Starlight attention is the larger goals and motivations of your team. And daylight attention is your team members’ knowledge of their field of activity and its connection to the larger world, as well as their awareness about the team’s limitations and potential.
The major difference is that teams can work together to support each other. Teams have the ability to listen to each other, to combine their skills and talents, and to shape the structures that they work in, Hybrid teams especially have the opportunity to experiment with new ways of working without being forced to rely on older practices.
Having a shared understanding of goals is something that we’ve talked about before as being important for things like psychological safety, team unity, and motivation. And developing a team’s self0 awareness takes place through things like team building, skill development, and mentorship.
3 tips for maintaining focus
In order to help your team focus and pay attention to what truly matters, here are three major pieces of advice that your team can use.
1. Limit multitasking
Multitasking is not good. That’s pretty much the consensus that many researchers are coming to today. In fact, multitasking might even be a misnomer. What you’re doing when you multitask isn’t doing multiple tasks at once, even if you think you are. What you’re really doing is “individual actions in rapid succession, or task-switching.”
Moving between tasks is not efficient and makes it harder to really focus. Even listening to music while working is not shown to be particularly good for focusing.
This is something that teams should definitely work on together. Managing workflows is part of being a productive and efficient team. And when people’s workflows are overloaded, it’s harder for them to deal with their most important (or meaningful) tasks.
Multitasking is especially prevalent in online work environments. You’re constantly bouncing back and forth between different documents, tabs, and applications. And the near-constant incoming of emails really doesn’t help, either.
Teams should discuss problems and solutions to multitasking together, and brainstorm ways to manage workflows more productively. Team members should also be encouraged to focus on one task at a time from their to-do-lists, something that managers or project management tools can help with (just make sure that the project management app doesn’t become yet another distraction).
2. Allow time for wandering and exploring
We tend to think of concentration and productivity as being stuck in one place, furiously working. That sometimes happens, but you can’t always control how or when your attention works. There are times when you need a break, and times where you need to wander.
One of the major problems today is that instead of letting our minds wander, we take out our phones and scroll through social media or browse the web. We don’t give ourselves the mental space and time that we often need, but rather we fill it in with stuff that our phones feed us.
Wandering may sound unproductive. But actually wandering has been shown to be good for attention and focusing. Taking walks to clear the mind has been around since ancient times. And newer research confirms that wandering can inspire creativity and help you problem solve (something we talked about before here).
But wandering doesn’t have to be physical. Mind-wandering means simply letting your mind go wherever it wants to. Oftentimes this is paired with a task, like free-form writing, drawing, meditation, or puzzle solving. Doing something unrelated to the mental task that you’re intensely concentrated on can actually get you to think about the task from new perspectives.
So encourage more wandering on your team, including brainstorming sessions as individuals and as teams. Be more flexible with scheduling, and allow team members to take the time they need to really think through things and come up with new ideas. Let people take a walk or do some art if they need to, especially if they are working at home. And understand that the creative process is just that, a process and a path, not an on-off switch.
3. Continue to learn and grow with each other
In order to work on becoming more self-aware and knowledgeable as a team (daylight attention), your team needs to keep learning together. This will help you stay on the same page, as well as grow in-tandem as a unified team, instead of haphazardly. Which means that you can focus on making decisions together, problem-solving, and becoming more efficient at completing tasks.
Learning can take many forms though. It includes mentorship opportunities for younger and newer employees. It includes complete and thorough job training and skills development so that team members can up their skills or learn new ones. And it can mean team building, which teaches your team about how to be a better team.
This kind of shared learning is crucial for hybrid teams nowadays. With team members off on their own and everyone developing at different speeds, it has become more clear that hybrid teams need to be more conscious about their team’s growth, and to be more proactive about implementing ways for teams to move forward together.
Things like online team building activities, skill development seminars, or online courses are a great way to keep you hybrid team learning. Encouraging more outside-of-work interactions will also be key in the near future, as things begin to open back up again. But promoting this type of learning and togetherness will allow your team to pay more attention to how they are functioning and interacting.
How teams pay attention, and to what , should be a big concern to all teams that use the internet regularly for their work. Paying attention is not only a question of getting tasks done, but about longer-term questions of goal-setting and motivation. And while technology has made it harder to focus, it’s not completely out of our hands either. We can structure our work differently, in a way that allows our creativity, ideas, and productivity to flow more smoothly and naturally. As long as we’re willing to give it a try.