Information overload and attention fragmentation

What is it about traveling that leads to loss of items? I've come to accept as inevitable that when I travel I lose stuff no matter how hard I plan to focus on returning with what I left with, plus with the items that I also seem to inevitably collect as I travel. It's not a zero sum game though, ten business cards does not equate to a pair of gloves, for example.

Once I read that leaving things behind is an unconscious statement that you want to stay in that place. But I don't think I want to stay in seat 64A of the train that goes from London to Newcastle – even if leaving my red scarf in the rack above the seat may imply that.

One thing that seems to contribute to the travel = loss of items is information overload. I'm juggling time zone changes, schedules, itineraries, suitcase, laptop, travel adaptors, documents, and other things in physical surroundings that are unfamiliar. It's hard to establish a routine or a habit when sleeping in four different locations on consecutive nights whilst trying to keep work commitments and the ideal of 'work is what you do, not where you are' giving the seamless customer service people expect when you're not on the road in the same way. Home based travel does not, in my case, lead to loss of items.

So, sitting on the LHR – Oxford bus, equipped with wifi I read, on-line, the McKinsey quarterly article Recovering from Information Overload , or 'attention fragmentation' as the McKinsey authors also call it, hoping to get some hints. It does note that the time honored, 'reserve chunks of time for reflection', and don't answer the phone or email for defined time periods is good practice but 'devilishly difficult to implement'.

Step in my brother who lives in Dallas, TX, but was traveling back from Barcelona (trade show) via London, on to Stockholm – meeting withsoftware engineers, and then back to Dallas. We met in Oxford at our mother's for a brief day before both hurtling on through check in lines. He had just lost his computer in Barcelona requiring hours of time and effort in the consequences of that.

His recommendation on travel loss and attention fragmentation was a book called 'We have met the enemy: self control in an age of excess', by Daniel Akst. When I get to the airport – I'm writing this on the airport bus again – I'll see if I can find it. Alternatively I could download it from this very bus seat to my i-pad and read it on that. (Note I have not put any items in the overhead rack). However, I have just fragmented my attention to see if that would be possible and the answer is no. I could download it to my Kindle if I had one but I gave it to a friend when I got the i-pad as I am having to get larger bags to carry increasing numbers of gadgets.

Back to the McKinsey article. I agree with the statement that 'multitasking unequivocally damages productivity', nevertheless the authors suggest that it's addictive and requires self control based around three principles: Focus, Filter, and Forget. (Small attention fragmentation to wonder why McKinsey writers are addicted to alliteration). I don't yet know what Akst's book recommends around self-control techniques but I'm guessing the recommendations will be similar to those for managing other types of addictive behavior – alcohol, smoking, and over-eating.

Hot on the heels of that McKinsey article I read (brief attention fragmentation to check if my i-pod that I'm syncing as I write this has completed. It has), I read an interview from strategy + business with Henry Mintberg. "Management by Reflection". The interview touches on the ubiquity of email, frantic overload, and so on but is more about how to help managers learn to manage effectively. Mintzberg suggests that "the most powerful way to learn is by reflecting on your own experience with colleagues." What he doesn't tackle is how to encourage managers to allow time to do this, although he notes that " My favorite thing, which we don't do enough, is to have what I call "white time." There's nothing on the schedule from 2:00 to 3:30. So some professor offers to give a lecture. And we say, "I'm sorry, that time's taken. We're doing nothing then."

That reminded me of an organization design program I was facilitating. I got fed up with the number of people spending a lot of time staring at their knees (on which rested their blackberries). I stopped the program and said "please put all electronic, electrical, input/output communication devices in the middle of the table". Obediently and in some bafflement all complied. I then said. "now stand up and walk out of the room leaving your devices. Come back in 20 minutes having done whatever you like, " which they did. At the end of the program on the evaluation sheet participants answering the question 'what was the most valuable part of the program' had almost all put as one of their responses – "having 20 minutes with no communication devices to do what I liked". One had elaborated – "20 minutes looking at the fish in the pond".

So what stops this deep need for managers to be reflective in order to perform better, and what can we do as organization designers to design in sufficient 'white space' and design out opportunities for 'attention fragmentation'?

It's something I'll be pondering on as I travel back to DC. Meanwhile the bus is about 5 minutes from Central Bus Station where I get off. I just have to make sure I leave the bus with all the things I brought to it. (And many thanks to my brother for running up to the Oxford bus station with the book I'd left in my mother's house!)

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