In an era of information overload, attention and focus is harder to find than ever. Organisational Psychologist Jane Piper outlines steps advisors should take to ensure full attention in an unstressed, uninterrupted way.
Never at any other time in history have we had so much information or has it been so easy to access it. The amount of information is doubling every two years and has been predicted to double once every 12 hours in the not so distant future. Share market information, analysts’ opinions, company reports and financial data is available to anyone at any time.
Information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom, as the saying goes. It should be added that spending your time consuming more and more information will not increase your knowledge or wisdom. The stakes have now shifted – information is no longer powerful or valuable.
The real value that advisors and their institutions can offer their clients is clarity and focus. Clarity by cutting through this deluge of data. Focus by curating the masses of information, and along with understanding the clients’ needs, to help them make the best investment decisions.
In the era of information overload, the human side comes to fore. Machines can crunch through the information faster and better than humans. Algorithms and machine learning can analyse and make predictions that previously were done by humans. However, those essentially human traits of empathy, trust and understanding can’t be carried out by a machine (not yet at least!). Creating a trusted connection requires undivided attention to listen and understand the world from the other person’s perspective.
Getting, and giving, undivided attention is even harder than ever before. With smartphones and connectivity, information is streaming at us constantly. The average person receives 40-60 notifications a day, and they check their phone every 12 minutes. Even without the interruption from notifications our days are a frenzy of jumping between tasks in rapid multi-tasking. When was the last time you had two to three hours of uninterrupted time? Uninterrupted time is becoming luxury in a busy hyper-connected world.
However, it shouldn’t be a luxury as it is necessary to perform at your best with both cognitively and emotional intelligence. Cognitive intelligence, making good decisions and solving problems requires a clear headspace, free from distraction and constant interruptions. It takes 23 minutes to get back to being totally immersed in the issue again after an interruption. Many examples of poor decisions in business can be traced back to times when a leader was under pressure and have not taken sufficient time to think through the problem.
Emotional intelligence is key to building relationships and trust in business, but it is negatively impacted by stress and distraction. The higher parts of the brain, described as executive functions, control emotional intelligence. They are the first parts of the brain to be negatively affected by stress, making it hard to regulate emotions, empathise and use advanced social skills, making you more likely to think and behave based on your emotions, rather than understanding the other person.
Creating zones of uninterrupted time for cognitive work or conversations is a very powerful way to improve your performance. The average adult attention span is somewhere between 25-50 minutes. Try putting your phone onto Do Not Disturb or Airplane Mode and set the timer for 25 minutes. Then work uninterrupted on a complex issue. It will feel different than multitasking and reacting to every notification. Harder but more satisfying. Like a muscle, your ability to concentrate will improve with practice so you can increase up to 50 minutes.
You need to create a similar zone to work in an emotionally intelligently way. How long does it take during a meeting with a client or a business conversation to be interrupted by a short check of their smartphone? An agreement at the start of a meeting about the use of phones is essential to get everyone’s attention and focus on the meeting. It might feel a little awkward now, but will become a social norm, the same way non-smoking zones are now just part of our culture.
Along with taking time to concentrate when it is important, the converse is also required. Taking time out from work will improve your performance and productivity. With a smartphone you can be working 24/7 but it isn’t going to help you to be more productive. It seems counterintuitive as it is the opposite of what we are usually told – be more productive by working harder and longer. Our brains work better with a period of intense concentration followed by a break. A short check of your work email in the evening, the residue of the thoughts remains in your mind for much longer than the real time spent on the email, making it harder to switch off, relax and refresh.
Try working less and have regular periods every day away from work to increase your productivity. This means you need to build boundaries between work and non-work time, creating times when you are not available for a call or to answer an email. Then you can enjoy your non-work activities, giving them your full attention. Time spent with family, friends or sports is more enjoyable when you are fully present. If half of your brain is still thinking about work then it is not as enjoyable for you, or the people you are spending time with. It doesn’t help to refresh the brain or release stress, required to be more emotionally intelligent when back at work.
In an era of information overload, attention and focus is harder to find than ever. Helping your clients to cut through this deluge of information, by understanding their needs then guiding them to make good decisions. Your ability to do this well requires you full attention in an unstressed, uninterrupted way. So take time to switch off so you can switch on to your clients.
Jane is an Organisational Psychologist and is the best-selling author of Focus in the Age of Distraction, (£12.00, Panoma Press). http://pipsy.ch/
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