Yesterday, February 20th, there was this little article floating all over Twitter from the Wall Street Journal about how scientists are discovering the benefits of unfocused time. The full article can be found here, but let me give you the quick overview. Attention spans have been a well documented discussion topic amongst experts in the recent news. You can see the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Harvard Business Review, and many other sources. Heck, you can just succumb to the cruel irony and Google it if you want the fast answer. According to this Wall Street Jounral article, 10% of children are now diagnosed with some sort of attention deficit like ADD. The reviewed study comes out of the University of Memphis and University of Michigan, where researchers found that undergraduate students who spent more time unfocused had a creative advantage over their more focused counterparts. The argument made is that we loose creative thought when we are too dialed in. The Wall Street Journal specifically mentions caffeine and Red Bull as items we use to try and stay focused to get more done. The article concludes that distractibility can actually be a net positive.
This information was retweeted and forwarded all over the place, with lots of positive comments. I couldn’t believe the article when I read it, nor the study. Drawing these conclusions from such a limited study is quite far fetched to me. At the same time, we are really elevating a concept that is far from new. Earlier on the Thrive blog, I wrote a post about developing creative capacity in our teams and workplace. You might take a minute to jump over and read it here. As organizations today flatten out, and the marketplace becomes more connected and competitive, creativity and innovation will continue to be the hot topic. The fact is, the general research population has been writing and researching focus for some time. The skinny on focus is that it is very powerful, and will give you what you want it to give. The advantage is that by being totally focused, we have the ability to go get what we want. The disadvantage is, of course, we better be correct in what it is that we are looking for. If we put the blinders on with a Trenta sized tipple shot Starbucks in hand, we can go hard and achieve our goals. What this article is calling attention to is all that we miss by achieving that goal. How many opportunities do you pass along the way?
We could go back and forth here for some time. We need to achieve goals, so we need to focus. We need metrics and measures to work towards. At the same time organizations today need creativity and innovation, so we need to… be distracted? I hardly think so. The answer is not be distracted, it is structured creativity. We need positive creative tension along with our metrics and focus. Consider the Harvard Business Review writing on “Aligning Span of Attention: The Goal of Organization Design”. Focus and creativity are organizational design issues. In this Harvard paper, they reference designing around performance variables and creative tensions. The answer lies in proper time management and intentionally being focused, at times, on being creative. The most successful people I have access to have great attributes of focus, drive, and effort. They work late, measure accomplishments, and set clear goals. At the same time, all of the successful people I know also journal, read, and have a “thinking” space. They value creativity as well as productivity, finding that these are not mutually exclusive. I think we need to be careful defining success in terms of being unfocused. Instead, I think we need take this study as a monument of what we miss when we don’t “stop to smell the roses”. It is a fine balance that we play. In the end, I feel the most successful people and organizations are the one’s that learn this balance and are able to effectively manage, direct, employ, and develop creative thought and action. As T.S. Elliot says, “Distracted from distraction by distraction” is the modernists plight.