Constant Distraction Challenges Your Thinking Space - Four Ways to Recapture Focus

Julie Jones
Recently, I read the book The Inevitable – Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future by Kevin Kelly. The book describes ways technology forces will change lives and includes these “verbs” - becoming, cognifying, flowing, screening, accessing, sharing, filtering, remixing, interacting, tracking, questioning, and beginning. I was particularly interested in the chapter called screening.

Kelly notes the ways that reading has changed and said we should call this new activity screening rather than reading. He writes that screening combines reading, watching words and reading images.  Others have created a term called skimmability -- the ability to direct reader’s vision across the page noting key messages in simple to consume chunks. This works because as Kelly notes, “Screens are always on: we never stop staring at them, unlike with books. This new platform is very visual, and it gradually merges words with moving images.”

He continues, “Some scholars of literature claim that a book is really that virtual place your mind goes to when you are reading. It is a conceptual state of imagination that one might call literature space…According to these scholars, when you are engaged in your reading space, your brain works differently than when you are screening. Neurological studies show that learning to read changes the brains circuitry. Instead of skipping around distractedly gathering bits, when you read you are transported, focused, immersed… One can spend hours reading on the web and never encounter this literature space. One gets fragments, threads, glimpses. That is the web’s great attraction: miscellaneous pieces loosely joined.”

Doesn’t screening sound like an operations leader’s day —fragments, threads, and glimpses that happen each moment? Operations management can be like a merry go round with sounds and bright images that constantly shift but never slow down.

Unfortunately, the natural distraction of operations can limit how easily you can be transported to “operations thinking space.” It’s hard to solve problems when you grab bits, threads, or glimpses of information. Your thinking shifts to what is immediately top of mind rather than a more thoughtful engaged thinking process considering a variety of information and synthesizing it for potential. Screening limits “synthesizing” – the crux of critical and creative thinking which requires you to be focused and immersed in a thinking space making connections between pieces of information.

Google has led you to believe there is a quick answer for every question or problem. In the synthesis of information, you are lulled into thinking it is fast and easy. The goal of critical thinking is synthesizing what is known and developing better questions that prompt new thought. The value isn’t in the answer but rather the questions to drive new ideas. Kelly notes that questions are the value that humans add to artificial intelligence.

Screening is like the two types of thinking presented by Daniel Kahneman in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow. As Kahneman notes, you need to slow down and let your system 2 rational thinking kick in to overcome the biases of system 1 - fast and reactionary - “screening”.  But the shift to slower and more immersed thinking is challenged by time, competing priorities, and operations issues.

As with most things, planned tactics or behaviors can be an effective tool to become more intentional in your processes including thinking.

Consider using these tactics to become more focused and immersed in the operations thinking space.

1.  Take 15 to 30 minutes, at the end or beginning of the day — whenever you think best. Step away from your office and distraction and give yourself a question to consider — How might we? What am I missing in my rush to judgment or solution? What do I need to learn this week? What might be important for the team to learn in the next few weeks? Take a few notes each day. Are there patterns or common themes that you identify? Allow time for the team to contemplate solutions.  

2.  Take advantage of a remote “thinking” day — What is your plan? What might you want to accomplish? What can you do today that will make the operation or team better tomorrow, next week or next month? The change of pace and location may be the prompt you need to gain better focus.  

3.  Once or twice per month, schedule a 30-minute meeting with a mentor or peer to discuss ideas or to help tackle a pressing problem. What is their feedback? What might improve both of your  ideas— creating something beneficial for both of you? The process of discussion , or social learning, helps embed learning and provides necessary thinking space.  

4.  Read a book - fiction or nonfiction from any genre. Perhaps there is a book discussion group at the library to try. Let the process of reading change you — so that you are “transported, focused, and  immersed.” Give yourself the license to slow down your brain while you read. Feel the difference when a story or the content solely grabs your attention.

I have a bias — I am an avid reader and have found many work ideas or problem/solution connections through reading. If you are looking for a book recommendation, I always have a few. I love fiction and nonfiction and am particularly fond of middle grade books like Charlotte’s Web, Sounder, and Where the Red Fern Grows. Read what you enjoy and embrace your choices because you like them.

Here are 5 of my favorite books that have transported me!

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman – a book about the power of people and connection. And we all know an Ove. 

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren – choose from a variety of stories. Pippi is about possibility. And celebrating difference.

The Boys in the Boat - Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown – a testament to grit and perseverance in unprecedented times.

Christy by Catherine Marshall – read this when you feel that one person can’t make a difference!

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee - a classic novel that I can read over and over and still uncover new details I missed.

This year, a friend paid it forward and gave me the book Free Country: A Penniless Adventure the Length of Britain by George Mahood. What a fun read -- one that made me laugh out loud and appreciate the kindness of strangers in this quirky reality TV-like story.

I hope you can capture some literature space and operations thinking time before the busyness of next year arrives.