Archive for April, 2009

Distraction as a Cause of Recession; Why Recovery Will Require Paying More Attention (Plus: How I Finally Disconnected on Vacation!)

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For the past few months I’ve pondered these questions:

  • Would people have made better personal financial decisions such as charging less to credit cards, and taking mortgages that they couldn’t afford if they’d paid closer attention to what they were doing?
  • Would leaders in financial institutions have seen the red flags sooner if they’d periodically stepped back, disconnected, and reflected on what their businesses were doing?

Upon reflection, it does seem that many of the choices and behaviors that contributed to the current recession all come back to a lack of attention.  Hindsight is always 20/20, and you have to be careful about too much Monday morning quarterbacking.  But, if we want to avoid making the same mistakes twice, being less distracted and paying closer attention needs to part of that post-recession work+life reality.

To get a better understanding of why paying attention in all aspect of our lives is so important and how a lack of it contributed to our current crises, I decided to go right to the source, Maggie Jackson, author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.  Reading Jackson’s book last year was a revelation (click here for my FastCompany.com review), and it caused me to rethink many of my personal behaviors and choices, as well as reconsider the way we were parenting our children.

A couple of months ago, I asked Jackson to share her thoughts with me about why distraction got us where we are today, and how paying more attention will be critical in the post-recession reality.  Here are highlights from our conversation:

CY: Is there a connection between a lack of attention and our current economic crisis?

MJ:  Yes, there is definitely a connection between our fragmented work styles and the economic situation, whether it’s the distracted bankers who didn’t understand what they were doing, or the individual American who checked out on the cost of their highly leveraged lifestyle.

There’s a rich body of research underscoring the cost of fragmented, interrupted time at work.  Whether it’s chopping up thinking with the constant interruptions of technology, or doing several things at once, when we fragment high-order thinking and problem-solving it leads to lower creativity, sub-par performance and a lack of innovation.

But more importantly for where we are today, it leads to a lack of vision which is extremely toxic.  We need to be able to have vision to see ourselves moving forward.  Intangible, abstract, higher order comprehension is needed to understand the future and to see warning signs.  Not having this is very corrosive, as we are seeing.

CY:  But we were “productive,” and had so much more information because of technology?

MJ: We need to rethink the meaning of “productive.”  We have information overload from skimming.  What we are missing is a deeper understanding, deeper connections.  Interestingly there is an SAT of Information Literary.  They are finding a dichotomy.  College students are quick to find information, but have trouble with the deeper analysis of that information. Yes, there has been a gain in terms of the access to information, but we need to really think about what is lost with that as well.

CY: Have you seen changes being made to reduce the amount of distraction and help people engage in deeper thinking and analysis?

Yes, I have and it’s very encouraging.  For example, there’s a hospital in Kentucky that trying to build in time for reflection, focus and awareness into the way work is being done.  IBM has instituted “Think Fridays,” where efforts are made to reduce meetings and other interruptions.

I’m also seeing a greater awareness about the importance of paying attention on the part of individuals.  They are ready to ask questions and find out more about it.  I was at a speech recently where the conversation turned to our relationship with “the machine.”  What the attendees meant was how we allowed  the machinery of life to take charge.  How we let computers take over and we just checked out.  “Machinery” became the norm, and we need to rethink that.  (Check out WorldatWork’s new study “Implications of Employer-Supplied Connectivity Devices.”)

CY: Thank you, Maggie.

For more on Maggie Jackson and her “attention movement,” check out these excellent interviews on The Huffington Post and the Harvard Business Review online.  And for my  prior posts on the subject of attention and awareness, click here and here.

Attention Case Study:  I Finally 100% Disconnected on Vacation!

I waited a couple of months to share my conversation with Maggie Jackson because I wanted to see if I could tackle one of my ongoing distraction challenges—not fully disconnecting from work during vacation.  After reading Jackson’s book last year, I understood why it was so important to take real meaningful breaks from work, vacation being one of them.  I’ve struggled with what I call my “vacation quandary” for years.  Specifically the push-pull between wanting to take a vacation, but finding myself for a variety of seemingly valid reasons to continuing to check in.  The brain research presented in Distracted finally convinced me I needed to commit to completely disconnecting.

Two weeks ago, I put my commitment to the test when my family went to on vacation for a week.  Even though I had my Blackberry (it’s my cell phone), I decided not to read or reply to emails.  I did not Twitter.  I did not check if there were comments on my blogs.  I checked my voicemail a couple of times, but did not respond because none of the messages were urgent.  So how did it feel to disconnect? Was I a more present while on vacation?  Did I feel clearer, better able to engage in critical-thinking when I returned?  I can categorically say yes to all of the above.  It did make a difference…and I had a lot more fun!

Are you attention-challenged?  How can you build in fewer interruptions, and reduce the level of distraction in your own life?  How do we create a more thoughtful, aware post-recession work+life reality?

Before I (Really Try) to Disconnect for Vacation, Here are a Couple of Things to Check Out….

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At the end of today, I am officially on vacation until Thursday 4/9, and it could not come a moment too soon.  Contrary to the doom-and-gloom picture painted for work life flexibility in the recent Washington Post article, we are busy.  While I’m very grateful and love what I do, I believe we all need to disconnect and re-energize periodically to continue bringing the best of ourselves to the task at hand. 

Unfortunately, as I’ve shared in past posts related to my ongoing “vacation quandary,” I struggle to make the break with work during vacation (here , here and here).  So, I will report back how I did in my first post after vacation on April 15th.  Appropriately enough, that post will focus on an interesting conversation I had with Maggie Jackson, the author of one of my favorite books from last year, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.  We talked about the need to pay attention and build in time to think and concentrate.  Should be interesting to see how much more focused, attentive and less distracted I feel when I return. I will let you know.      

In the meantime, before I leave for vacation, here are a couple of things to check out:

  • Marci Alboher interviewed me for her new blog Working the New Economy on Yahoo! Shine for a post entitled, “Negotiating an Alternative to Layoffs: 5 Questions for Cali Yost.”  Then go to my most recent FastCompany.com blog post, “Jobless Claims Rise to Record Levels, 20 Blog Posts Promote Flexible Alternatives to Layoffs” for a snapshot of all the of posts I’ve written over the past year encouraging a more flexible approach to downsizing that minimized layoffs.
  • Kathie Lingle, Executive Director of the Alliance for Work Life Progress, wrote a must-read blog post, ‘The News of Our Demise is Much Exaggerated.”  In the post she uses her long history in the field and in-depth knowledge of what’s really going on to challenge the validity of the fear-based Washington Post article I mentioned earlier about the demise of work life flexibility in the recession.  Yes, there are pockets of “Let’s go back to 1985, because people should feel lucky to have jobs” resistance.  But there’s also support for flexibility as a business strategy even more valuable during difficult times.
  • Alfred P. Sloan Awards for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility now, for the first time, accepting applications for a national, at-large award to recognize employers across the country that are successfully using flexibility to meet both business and employee goals.  This is new.  In the past, this award was given out only in local communities around the country, so individual offices of national companies could win but not the company overall.  This new award now offers national recognition.  Deadline to apply is May 1, 2009. 
  • Finally, if you haven’t done so already, please consider following me on Twitter.com at http://twitter.com/caliyost.  You will find many of your favorite work+life experts on Twitter providing up-to-the-minute real-time commentary on work+life related issues of the day.  Go to the list of people I’m following to find them all, and then join in the conversation! 

With that, I’m officially signing off from all things Web 2.0 until the week of April 13th.  Wish me luck in my quest to disconnect!  Please feel free to share any tips that could help.

Fast Company:Jobless Claims Rise to Record Levels, 20 Reasons to Promote Flexible Alternatives to Layoffs

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Today, the Department of Labor reported that first time jobless claims not only rose faster than expected but they were 72% higher than this time last year and reached levels not seen since October, 1982.  With this news as a backdrop, it’s fortuitous that Marci Alboher, one of my favorite career experts, interviewed me in her new Working the New Economy blog on Yahoo! Shine for a post entitled “Negotiating an Alternative to a Layoff: 5 Questions for Cali Yost.”

Unfortunately, some layoffs are unavoidable.  But if leaders considered flexible alternatives as part of downsizing, they would lower costs while retaining as much valuable talent as possible to work through this great recession.

As I determined which links from my blog to include in Marci’s interview, I realized how much I’d written over the past year laying out the business case for flexible downsizing.  Since unemployment is a lagging indicator to a recovery, unless we change course, layoffs will likely continue at these historic levels.  To inspire creative thinking on the part of organizational leaders and to support employees who want to present flexible cost-saving options to their manager, I’ve recapped in one place all of my posts related flexible downsizing as an alternative to layoffs–I hope the information provides some fact-based ammunition to reconsider job cuts as the only and best option, because they aren’t many cases… (Click here for links to the 20 blog posts)