Mindfulness and the Attention Economy

December 22, 2015

Mindfulness and the Attention Economy

Work life has changed drastically over the past two decades. We have gone from working with single information objects such as typewriters to working with constant digital distractions like emails, text messages, social media updates, and so forth. In this 24/7 distracted environment our attention comes under siege, and that has detrimental effects on productivity.

We are gradually losing our ability to manage our attention. It has been documented by researchers like Edward Hallowell who sums up his research in the Harvard Business Review article "Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform," "Modern office life and an increasingly common condition called attention deficit trait, are turning steady executives into frenzied underachievers."

In the Science article, "A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind" Daniel Gilbert and Matthew Killingworth show that," on average, our minds are wandering involuntarily from what we are doing 46.9 percent of the time. In a work context, this means that almost half of our time we are not truly present with our tasks. We are facing an emerging "Attention Economy" where one of the most valuable currencies is a clear, calm, and focused attention. In the perspective of performance and productivity, there is a great potential to be developed here. And mindfulness seems to be one enabling factor that determines whether we thrive or merely survive in the attention economy.

The One Second

Everybody talks about mindfulness and praises its many benefits. But what is the DNA of mindfulness? And how does it seem to be a foundational key to surviving and thriving in an attention economy?

Jacob was a senior manager in a large financial services company. Like most of his counterparts, he was always "on"—connected to the office in one way or another, all day, every day. Day in, day out, he dealt with a steady stream of e-mails and an overloaded calendar of meetings. Jacob was facing the attention economy.


When I first met Jacob, he told me that he didn't feel in control of his life. He felt like he was always trying to catch up, always overloaded with external forces—people and tasks—dictating his day-to-day reality. He felt he was living on autopilot, merely reacting to what was thrown at him.


Sound familiar?


In our first meeting, Jacob committed to undertake a four month training program. During that time, we met for ten one-hour sessions and he dedicated ten minutes a day to mindfulness training. It was a significant investment of time considering his already busy work schedule. After the four months had gone by, I asked Jacob what he'd gained from the program. His answer: "One second."


At first, his response took me by surprise. Four months of effort and daily training to gain only one second? That seemed like a meager return. But then he explained, "Previously, when something happened, I reacted automatically. Every time an e-mail came in, I read it. Every time I received a text, I answered it. Whenever a thought or emotion popped into my head, I paid attention to it and allowed it to take my focus away from what I was doing. I was a victim of my own automatic reactions. The four months of training have given me a one-second mental gap between what happens and my own response. It feels like I'm one second ahead, so that I can choose my response rather than being a victim of my automatic reactions. I can't always control what happens in life, but I've developed the freedom to choose my response to it."


Jacob's story clearly describes what millions of busy people experience every day. But one second? What can change in one second? Everything.


In our low-latency world, speed is a factor in any competition—sports, politics, and especially business. This is more true now than ever before. With today's high-frequency trading, millions of dollars can change hands in a millisecond. That's one-tenth the time it takes to blink. As the speed of business approaches the speed of light, one second is the difference between performance and high performance. For Jacob, one second gave him the freedom to control his thoughts, his actions, and, more profoundly, his life.


The one second of mental space provided him the mental capacity to make better choices, moment by moment; in business as well as in life. Mindfulness, in this way, can be a game changer in an attention economy, because of its direct impact on how the brain functions. It can change our entire mental operating system and enhance individual and organizational performance.

The Neurology of the One Second

The one second of mental freedom is an advantage in any industry. The global law firm Herbert Smith Freehills found that their lawyers and partners experienced an average of 45 percent increased focus, 35 percent improved effectiveness, 34 percent better work-life balance, 17 percent more engagement, 35 percent decreased stress and 18 percent decreased multitasking. All of these benefits stem from the mindfulness training and its application to practical work life situations. So what is actually happening within the brain as we engage in this practice? A lot is happening.

From a neurological point of view, mindfulness training has shown to shift our perception of reality. And that can be very useful in a fast paced and pressured work life. When we are under pressure, we perceive reality mainly through our limbic brain. The limbic brain is operating on the "fight, flight, or freeze" system. That system was useful some hundred thousand years ago, when life was about avoiding to be eaten up by predators. But in an office environment, that response can be triggered by even small disagreements or poorly written emails and triggering a "limbic hijack" whereby we lose mental clarity, good judgment and empathy and easily make irrational and poor decisions. For a lawyer, a doctor, or any other professional, limbic hijacks can have massively negative consequences. And they can happen many times a day—without our awareness of it. Mindfulness has shown to help us out of that.

Mindfulness training creates a switch in the brain, whereby we start to perceive less through our limbic brain and more through our prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is where executive functioning resides, and is the foundation for mental clarity, focus and good decisions. A partner in Herbert Smith Freehills describes her experience of this shift in this way:

"The mindfulness training has had a profound effect on me. I have slowed down, but get more done. I am more focused on the task or client in front of me, and less stressed about the things I don't do. I feel a greater sense of clarity of thought and more in control of my time, my emotions and my life. The training seems to be a key to unlock my potential and happiness."  

The simple shift from limbic hijack to prefrontal executive function is the game changer. It is the shift from reactivity to responsivity. It is where the "one second" is released, and it is foundational for thriving and performing in a 24/7 distracted attention economy.

The Authors: 

Rasmus Hougaard is founder and managing director of The Potential Project. He is an internationally acknowledged expert in training the mind to be focused and clear at work. He is the founder of The Potential Project "“ a leading global provider of corporate based mindfulness solutions operating in 20 countries. He and his teams are training senior executives, leaders and employees in organizations like Google, Nike, Accenture, GE, and many other organizations in North America, Europe, Asia and Australia. Rasmus is author of the book One Second Ahead: Enhancing Performance at work with Mindfulness. Read more at: www.potentialproject.com

Murray Paterson is head of capability development, Herbert Smith Freehills in Australia. His responsibilities include the design and delivery of learning programs for partners, lawyers and business services staff across the firm. With many years of personal mindfulness practice, Murray is a strong believer in the benefits that mindfulness can bring, from improved effectiveness and performance that comes from increased clarity of thinking and focus, and also a greater sense of well being for professionals working in a demanding and challenging profession.