No matter how interested you are in this article, you probably won’t finish reading it right now, especially if you’re at work.
Yet another urgent text will come in, you’ll get a string of new email alerts, you’ll overhear a colleague at the next workstations mention your name during a videoconference so you’ll turn your attention to what that’s all about, you’ll still be trying to catch up on your emails when your boss will stop by to ask about that proposal you’ve been trying to finish all week, which will prompt you to go online to browse for some more information and then, since you’re online anyway and didn’t take a lunch break and starting to feel really resentful about the impossible amount of the work you’re expected to do and how hard it is to focus, you’ll stop off at Facebook and notice that today is the birthday of your best friend from college, so you’ll read the 73 messages she’s received so far and then decide, what the heck, you’ll give her a call while you’re still catching up on email and then, before you know it, you’re almost late for your third meeting of the day and feeling more stressed than ever, so you’ll get a large black coffee with an extra shot of espresso and try to work on the proposal during the meeting.
TOO MUCH INFORMATION
Scenarios of near-constant distraction at work have become the norm versus the exception for most people today. It’s well said that a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and most workers are now living that mental skirmish every day. At the same time that we’re drowning in information, we’re also expected to process it faster, getting to insights, recommendations, decisions or at least next steps rapidly. In minds as cluttered as a scrap yard, we scramble to find something that will “make do,” responding to the pressure for action.
Yet, we long to be more effective at our jobs. We keep telling ourselves: Just be more focused, just work harder. But, in reality, no matter how hard we try, our brains just don’t work that way. While our higher-level cognitive skills distinguish us from other mammals, being attuned to what’s going on around us is also embedded in our evolution, a key to survival. This means that today’s way of working has become a Catch 22: We’re taking our natural inclination to be distracted and training our brains to be even more so.
With attention meltdowns now epidemic in many organizations, nearly everyone is struggling to adapt, often without any real understanding of what attention is, how it works, or how to attain it and use it productively. Fortunately and just in time, the research of neuroscientists in more than 40,000 labs throughout the world is shedding new light on the processes of attention and, in so doing, providing decipherable clues into how it can be supported in the workplace.
During the past year, Steelcase researchers and designers have been delving into the findings of neuroscientists and cognitive researchers, integrating discoveries from these experts with their own ongoing investigations into workers’ behaviors and the changing nature of work. The resulting convergence of findings has inspired new perspectives and new ideas for how environments, when thoughtfully designed, can be a hardworking and effective tool to help workers better manage their attention. And that has all kinds of competitive advantages: improved worker engagement and wellbeing, more creativity and innovation, and better business results overall.
The way to increase productivity and creativity is not about always trying to do more focused work or put in more hours, say Steelcase researchers. Instead, it’s about getting smarter about the brain, learning its limitations as well as how to leverage it to full capacity to direct our attention, and inspire and challenge us in different ways throughout the workday.
RESPECTING THE RHYTHMS OF OUR BRAINS
Part of the problem of our distraction, and the solution, lies in ourselves. By changing our existing habits, we can gain more control of our brains—and our lives. As we become more knowledgeable about how our brains work and more attuned to the ebb and flow of our attention, it becomes easier to recognize what our brains need when. Steelcase researchers and designers have identified three brain modes that each require distinct behaviors and settings:
Focus: When we need to deeply focus on something, it’s important to avoid unwelcome distractions. Whether the distractions are external or internal, every time we switch our attention we burn through finite neural resources and increase opportunities for the limbic system to hijack our focus. Whether it’s turning off our phones for awhile or completely overhauling how we manage our day or just getting more sleep, a widening circle of expert authors is offering a steady stream of helpful tips in books, magazine articles, interviews and online media, suggesting various behaviors that we can adopt to focus our brains more productively.
Layers of boundary—from fully enclosed spaces to micro lounge settings—enable users to control external stimuli—sound, sightlines, lighting and temperature to their individual preferences.
Brody WorkLounge, a cocoon-like setting, cuts down on visual distractions and provides an empowering sense of control and psychological safety.
- screen eliminates visual distractions
- adjustable table orients user to work
- light illuminates personal content
- ottoman enables ergonomic wellbeing
Regenerate + Inspire: Although self-regulation is necessary for controlled attention it’s important to recognize that distractions can be opportunities to give our brain the timeout it needs and then let our minds go where they will. Although daydreaming has taken on generally negative connotations in the work world, as it turns out our brains are still working when they wander, even though we feel like we’re not. The neurons are forging new pathways versus focusing on what you already know. And that’s when insights really start developing. That old adage about focusing too hard so you can’t see the forest through the trees and the stereotype of ‘aha’ moments in the shower or driving to work—now we know that those really have a scientific component. Neuroscience helps us understand that often the best way to solve a problem is to walk away from it and let your brain do the work subconsciously.
This social zone, placed at an intentional crossroad, hosts a variety of nurturing activities: grabbing a cup of coffee, taking a few minutes to be mindful, having a relaxed conversation with coworkers or simply taking a deep breath to recover brain energy.
- A fireplace surrounded by natural wood encourages calm contemplation and is also a hub for quiet conversation.
- The Visalia Lounge chair by the fireplace creates a calm contemplative place for reflection.
A coffee bar provokes serendipitous encounters and conversations, while a media wall invigorates the mind with interesting company information and news from around the world.
An informal lounge setting encourages relaxed postures and dynamic exchanges that provoke new ways of thinking.
Activate: When we need to activate our arousal, moving our bodies is the key. Although we may have learned otherwise in school, static sitting sabotages our ability to concentrate. Numerous studies have proven that movement boosts attention by pumping oxygen and fresh blood through the brain and triggering the release of enhancing hormones. While the physical and emotional benefits of movement are well established, neuroscience has proven it also enhances cognition.
These settings incorporate opportunities for movement—whether a stand-up brainstorm session or a walk during a conference call, this activity refreshes the mind as well as the body.
- This private retreat supports an immersive experience and connection to nature.
- A Walkstation Treadmill Desk can stimulate the brain through movement while doing routine tasks.
- Standing height table without seating encourages movement during a short brainstorm session and access to content on the wall.
- Access to natural light and views inhibits stress hormones, helping workers attain productive states of mind.
- Whiteboards capture information and ideas, reducing cognitive load to encourage creative thinking
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