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A Bad Case of Attention Exhaustion

Information overload continues to wreak havoc in our organizations and personal lives. It creates high levels of stress, a short-term tactical focus for leaders, and inhibits our abilities to accomplish meaningful results. More importantly our approach to dealing with information overload creates counter-productive behaviors and habituated ways of thinking in other areas of our lives. So how to deal with this exhausted attention?

In the 1920s Russian psychologist Bulma Zeigarnik noted a tendency in human beings to be mentally and emotionally preoccupied with incomplete tasks and coined this tendency as the “Zeigarnik Effect.” Overstuffed email inboxes, long task lists, incomplete projects, unmade phone calls, and unfulfilled promises inhibit our capacity to process, store, and integrate information effectively. In short, we suffer from exhausted attention from too much input.

A Case in Point

I once coached a senior executive who struggled with decision making. As I observed him processing the email in his inbox, I was struck and concerned by a periodic loud groan he would make. “ARRGGHHHH! UGGHH!” 

When I asked him, what was causing all the trouble, he explained that his responsibilities included reviewing and approving a series of expenditures. He absolutely dreaded these requests because he would have to review a certain amount of data to determine whether to approve or not. I asked him to go ahead and review several requests so that I could observe. I also timed him on how long it actually took him to process the requests. We were both surprised to learn that on average it took him 12 seconds each!  

I quickly realized that his attention was so overwhelmed it felt like there was no room for anything else, even a relatively simple approval. You see, exhausted attention leads to decision exhaustion, procrastination, and even poor decision making. 

What Do We Do About It?

Research has shown that there are multiple ways to address this issue. 

  • First, we must learn how to manage our attention and limit distractions wherever possible. We simply allow too much input to be received. 
  • Secondly, we must be able to focus our attention on a short list of intrinsically motivated goals; the things that really matter most.

More recently, author Daniel Pink noted that an interesting change occurs in our brain when we commit to such a goal. Once we consciously focus on a goal, the brain subconsciously evaluates goal-relevant information in our environment that is consistent with achieving the goal. Like radar, it selectively notices incoming data that may contribute to or influence the goal. Concurrently, the brain inhibits irrelevant information to protect our delicate cognitive capacities from overload. 

With these principles in mind, our attention-exhausted senior executive was able to implement a simple, streamlined decision making process resulting in his ability to make faster more effective decisions while more quickly weeding out irrelevant information. Once the process was in place, he quickly tore through 60+ emails in under 30 minutes, well on his way to inbox “0”.

Given the complex, information-laden environments in which we find ourselves, we must change our approach. We must integrate what we now know about the human mind with simple yet practical methods that enable individuals and organizations to evolve new paradigms of communication, interaction, and work.  Are you paying attention to what matters most? See you out there my friends!

 ~Anne McGhee-Stinson