Curtailing “Look, a Squirrel!” Affliction with Attention Narrowing

SquirrelThe workplace is full of distractions (I received three email alerts and a text in the time it took me to write that first sentence). We are overloaded with conflicting strategies, shifting priorities, and chains of command that look more like a Jackson Pollock painting than a hierarchal pyramid. As a result, we are falling more and more into “Look, a Squirrel!” Affliction.

If you are unfamiliar, “Look, a Squirrel!” is that moment someone is speaking and gets easily distracted: “Yes, I understand the need for – look, a squirrel. You see it? What was I saying?” The “squirrel” can be an email, hunger, or a fleeting thought. It occurs when a brainstorming session goes wildly off topic or when a meeting is diverted by an over-scrutinized minute detail. It can also take place when our trek towards a goal is sidetracked from lost focus.

The need for focus was recently studied in an article for Motivation and Emotion. Researchers examined where runners look during a race. Some were told to focus on a stopping point in the distance, like a cone or tree. Others were told to look around as they naturally would. As expected, the group with sharp concentration fared better – they perceived the cones to be 28% closer, walked 23% faster, and reported that the walk required less physical exertion. This concept of attention narrowing is equally applicable in the workplace.

When people see goals as within reach, it may mobilize action, producing bursts of energy that result in quicker walking times and an experience of ease.

A Harvard study found employees spend 47% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they are doing. That is a lot of potentially wasted time and is why, as leaders, we must make attention narrowing a part of our strategy. Here are three ways to focus your team towards an endpoint.

Simplify

With all the clutter, it is our responsibility to streamline the team’s goals. Pinpoint a few objectives (no more than 3-5) and communicate them in a way where everyone comprehends the goals’ importance, the steps and milestones to implement, and each member’s responsibilities to ensure its success.

Block Out Noise

The mess may flow downhill, as they say, but that does not mean we have to sit back as it washes away our team. Your staff do not need to be distracted by the pressures and chaos coming down on you. Filter out what they need and present it in a more organized and constructive manner.

Challenge

Attention narrowing is not the same as tunnel vision. One involves working towards an endpoint while the other blinds you to necessary information. If you are concerned that your team may be heading for a tunnel, give them the chance to breath. Remind them of the broader vision, challenge assumptions, and encourage them on the progress that’s been made.

When squirrels get in the way, it is upon each of us to narrow attention towards the distant target. As shown in the running study, your laser focus will make goals feel closer, increase performance, and result in less mental exertion. There will always be shiny moving objects to distract us from what we are trying to achieve. Limit interference and limit – look, a squirrel. Did you see that? What was I saying?