'Concentration crisis' troubles leaders

At any given moment during the workday, there are multiple tasks vying for a person's attention. Leaders are beginning to take note of this "concentration crisis" — and the threat it presents to productivity and creativity. 

Managers have noticed a significant output drain in recent years, and research supports their concerns, according to a recent report from management consulting firm Korn Ferry

"The knowledge worker's inability to concentrate is the most underrated and serious challenge facing business today," Maura Thomas, author of books on attention management and consultant for organizations ranging from L'Oréal to NASA, told the firm. 

Modern life and work patterns are changing the way the human brain operates, and not for the better. Korn Ferry references research from Gloria Mark, PhD, a professor of informatics at the University of California-Irvine. In 2004, she found that people could work for two and a half minutes before switching tasks. In 2012, they could work for 75 seconds. Now, workers spend an average of 47 seconds on one task. 

When a person's attention is interrupted, it takes them approximately 25 minutes to return to the original task, according to Dr. Mark. This lapse in productivity has a cost. 

"When we get aroused and briefly give our attention to one thing and then another, it's like doing one bicep curl, then one squat," said Amelia Haynes, a neuroscience researcher at Korn Ferry. "You have to do a full set to get results."

It may be easy to blame social media, but the problem runs far deeper, according to Korn Ferry. A new field of research — neuroergonomics — has surfaced to study the forces that burden brains and hurt cognition, from air pollution to sleep deprivation. Research from Cambridge, Mass.-based Harvard University found that people who stay awake for 19 hours become cognitively impaired as if they were drunk, and the amount of sleep Americans get has dropped 20 percent in the past century. 

Another major problem: email. Asana, a project management software company, found that 60 percent of knowledge workers' time is spent on coordination and communication, what the organization calls "work about work." The average person checks their inbox 74 times a day. 

Dr. Mark studied a company that cut off email for an entire workweek. Using heart-rate monitors strapped to workers, she observed that for the first few days, stress remained high as workers compulsively checked their inboxes. But at the end of the week, employees could focus longer and had lower stress levels. 

The concentration crisis is complex, and employers only have so much control over the many distractions vying for workers' attention. But there are some steps they can take, according to Korn Ferry. Companies can plan days without meetings to allow more time for "deep work," and leaders can schedule any correspondences sent after hours to be delivered during the workday, allowing employees to feel they can unplug. 

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