Look Who's Distracted Now

Harvard Business Review

When acclaimed hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones revealed his opinion that women become much less effective as stock traders or investors once they have children, he was, in a sense, suggesting that the distraction of motherhood—a distinctly feminine condition—exceeds that of other attention-siphoning activities. I was reminded of how, almost thirty years ago, I heard that someone at my investment firm asked in a meeting whether I could simultaneously be a good fund manager and a good mother. Putting aside the absurdity of an executive wondering out loud whether any father can possibly juggle both his job and his parenting, these comments raise important concerns. Are mothers at work more distracted than non-mothers, men, or fathers, and, if so, is there anything we can do about it?

Many studies about work concentration have shown that a variety of life changing events, conditions, and behaviors affect our ability to focus. Concentration lapses occur more frequently when people are falling in love, having an affair, getting divorced, substance abusing, worried about a sick child or a dying parent, or even happily married but building or buying a new house, one of the most stressful situations of all.

But, is there any hard evidence that women are more easily distracted than men? According to one study from BYU that used self-reported data, women between the ages of 30-49 do report more trouble concentrating than other groups, citing factors including childcare concerns. However, women may be more honest in their self-evaluations than their male peers, or in jobs more prone to distraction—part-time workers and service workers were both more likely to be distractible at the office, as opposed to male-dominated professions like construction. (The lesson here may be as simple as: You're much more focused when your job involves making sure not to drop a 2x4 on your foot.) Finally, the least distracted cohort was women over 60, who presumably would not be in the workforce—particularly at high levels—unless they worked through a few of the tougher years. Most damning, other studies failed to confirm the BYU results, as have those observing how teenage attention disorders, which are almost twice as common in teenage boys as girls, may carry forward into adulthood.

Having worked full time through the years when my children were young, I recognized that I needed to apply some energy every work day to family matters. But I can also attest that when I attended investor conferences in the 80s,and a group of participants (not including me) would rush off to strip clubs or a line of cocaine, they were almost exclusively men. Call me naïve, but I consider that a distraction.

No employer expects that any of its staff, regardless of rank or gender, is focused on her or his job all day without interruption. My father-in-law, who was a very astute small business owner, used to tell me (only half in jest) that the very best anyone could hope for was four solid hours a day of total effort, himself included. Professor Cathy Davidson of Duke, in a 2011 HBR interview, defined the maximum length of uninterrupted human concentration as 20 minutes, before we need some break, whether to space out or check our email. In addition to the constant attention-grabbing matters of love, children, sickness, and death, we now, of course, have the rise of technology-related distractions, which some decry as the great enemy of concentration.

According to entrepreneur and Google Ventures partner Joe Kraus, "We are creating and encouraging a culture of distraction." He bemoans the obsession with checking our smart phones and fruitless efforts to multi-task, which he describes as simply switching focus very quickly from one thing to another—reducing rather than increasing productivity. We rely on constant stimulation from texts and emails to not only fill gaps in our time alone but also to avoid or delay getting down to work on projects at hand. The oxymoronic concept of being physically present but mentally absent on the job has been dubbed "presenteeism." Of course, if we can't actually focus solidly for more than twenty minutes at a time, we require distractions, whether they are actively initiated, such as texting or calling, or passively absorbed, such as listening to colleagues banter.

If our existing level of distraction, already an office mainstay, is rising at an alarming rate, as Joe Kraus suggests, or if social media is only an incremental and not entirely destructive new distraction, what are some tools to improve our concentration?

Keep a to-do list with the suggested time allotment for that task. If you cannot go over an hour without checking new emails or texts, break the effort into manageable chunks of time. It's the equivalent of "hold my calls" but applied to other communications as well.

Provide positive feedback on work done in a timely manner. Everyone loves a compliment. If colleagues see how appreciative you are, they will want to repeat the performance again. A little positive reinforcement goes a long way.

Stop obsessing about responding to all digital communications immediately. Almost all can wait twenty minutes, and almost none require immediate answers. Unfortunately, we have trained ourselves, our loved ones, and our co-workers that it is permissible not to plan ahead, since we can be reached in a moment's notice. Let's try to retrain ourselves and think ahead so that we don't have to interrupt a stream of thought and respond to a last-minute request.

Realize that the benefit from thorough and thought-engaging effort is more valuable than the satisfaction of a reputation for instantaneous accessibility. I am guilty of the latter and vow, regardless of how hard it is, to start following my own advice. Hold on a second; I just received a text.

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