January 25, 2012
Written by Ty Kiisel, Manager of Social Outreach, AtTask
Is Social Media Shortening Our Attention Span?
It’s probably unfair to blame social media specifically, but I think it’s safe to say that the 24/7 media barrage of soundbites we face every day could be taking its toll. Twitter users need to make their point in 140 characters or less, USA Today, Fox News and others have shortened stories to be quickly digested and even media outlets like CNN rely on the pretty faces of their news anchors to keep our attention. As a result any substantive conversation lasting over five minutes is met with glazed eyes and shuffling feet. “Didn’t my iPhone just ring?”
Verizon’s “Can you hear me now?” campaign should probably be replaced with, “Are you paying attention to me now?”
I’ll be the first to admit that if we really want the ears, eyes and attention of our audience we need to make sure that our message is relevant (and interesting). This is particularly true in the workplace. How many times have you sat in a meeting where three or four of the people attending open up their laptop, tap away on their iPad or distractedly thumb through emails or text messages on their smart phones? Although the problem may sometimes be the meeting, even in the midst of important discussions, I’ve watched colleagues allow themselves to be distracted by email and other work they perceive is more important—only to find out later that it wasn’t.
I’m reminded of a Seinfeld episode where George and his boss were having a discussion walking down the hall. As the boss stepped into the restroom, George waited outside. Unfortunately for George, his boss continued the discussion inside.Upon exiting, George received an assignment to follow up on items discussed inside the restroom. In a panic, having missed the entire discussion, and unwilling to admit that he wasn’t engaged in the first place, George spent the rest of the episode trying to figure out what he was supposed to do. I’ve watched this happen to people who were “in” the meeting yet distracted by something else, unaware they even have an assignment.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of social media and technology. I’m convinced that we should be leveraging all the potential technology tools at our disposal to create collaborative environments where people can contribute to something worthwhile and perform at a higher level. I’m not a fan of how technology seems to dumb-down our collective ability to focus on the things that are really important.
Step Away From the iPhone
I have to admit, my wife doesn’t have much patience for the way I check my iPhone every time it chirps or buzzes, nor my need to open up my laptop during a quiet Friday night in front of her favorite movie. Sometimes, in the middle of a conversation, she’ll simply stop talking to make sure I’m paying attention. How would your colleagues react should that happen in your next meeting. How long would it take to get everyone’s attention back. My sweet wife has actually left the room before—needless to say, my lack of attention didn’t go over very well.
Over the last year I’ve attended a few meetings that could unofficially be designated as technology free. To avoid the temptation to multitask (which studies have determined to be a pipe-dream, since we can’t focus on more than one thing at a time anyway), where laptops, smartphones and iPads were to remain out of sight and untouched during the course of the discussion. These meetings were strangely liberating as we were forced to ignore every chirp and buzz. We were able to focus on the discussion at hand, we accomplished the objectives of those meetings with minimal distraction and there was no question regarding follow-up items.
Although it might feel like it, keeping the technological soundbite barrage at bay long enough for people to have intelligent conversations about the things that really matter doesn’t require the earth to stop rotating on its axis. Here are a few suggestions:
- Don’t let the immediacy of the medium dictate the quality of the conversation. I’m not a big fan of “text-speak” abbreviations. Even in my text messages, I try to communicate in complete sentences and thoughts. I do the same on Twitter and Facebook. It takes a little more work, but not much. It also takes the guesswork out of interpreting what I’m trying to say. Particularly in the workplace, if we have to dumb-down the level of dialog to suit any particular communication medium, maybe we should choose another outlet for the conversation. Maybe even a real conversation?
- Listen more, speak less. Abraham Lincoln said, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.” How much time do you spend listening verses speaking? In every conversation are you thinking more about what you are going to say next, or are you really listening to what’s being said? I’ve known far too many people who love the sound of their own voices. Listen more, speak less.
- Technology is not a substitute for real relationships. Technology is intended to enhance our ability to collaborate, not replace the need for personal interaction. As valuable as these tools are, if we don’t foster real and productive relationships with people it will be difficult for organizations to achieve any measurable level of success. Leadership requires making a personal connection with people. Technology can’t do that.
- Live in the moment. At the risk of sounding a little new-age-ie, if you’re in a meeting, be in the meeting. If you’re in a conversation, be in the conversation. Don’t let distractions pull you away from what’s happening right now. The phone chirping can wait—they’ll either leave a message or call you back. The email will still be there when the meeting’s over.
- Never meet just to meet. I have often wondered how much time I’ve wasted over the last 30 years in standing meetings that had no real purpose. Regularly scheduled meetings are important, but if you are responsible for a regularly scheduled meeting and their is no real reason to meet, cancel that instance of the meeting and wait for another day.
- Go low-tech once in a while. I will admit that I can type notes during a meeting faster than I can write them down. However, my Moleskine allows me to stay in the meeting, focus on the presentation or discussion and still capture any notes or thoughts I’ll want to refer back to later. Plus, whoever is leading the meeting doesn’t wonder if I’m really engaged—they can’t misinterpret my tapping on the keyboard as something it isn’t. It’s obvious that I’m engaged in the discussion.
Listening, paying attention and engaging fully in every conversation or communication creates an atmosphere where everyone can effectively collaborate, people can contribute to something meaningful and organizations can leverage the strengths of everyone in the organization toward a successful outcome.
“Are you paying attention to me now?”