We all fall victim to distraction at one point or another. Is it any wonder with the bevy of advertisements, alerts, emails and constant notifications that we’re faced with each day. It’s gotten so intense that the average person struggles to make it three minutes without being interrupted. IncentiveWorks 2016 keynote Curt Steinhorst knows a thing or two about distraction. As the founder and president of Promentum Group, a communications consultancy that crafts messages for today’s distracted audiences, but his fascination with distraction isn’t just professional. Diagnosed with ADD as a child, he’s worked tirelessly to overcome the unique distractions that today’s technology creates. Christine Otsuka spoke to Curt to find out how to thrive in the age of distraction.
Q. When were you diagnosed with ADD? How did your diagnosis affect your life?
In middle school. The diagnosis honestly had very minimal impact on my life. My parents just didn’t allow it to be an excuse for poor performance. I was expected to make good grades and not be a behaviour problem for teachers. It wasn’t until I started my own business that I felt completely overwhelmed by it. I can buckle down to complete mentally strenuous work. It’s Quickbooks and the email deluge that makes me go batty.
Q. When did you first discover that distraction is a universal issue, something that affected everyone?
I remember sharing my struggles to focus with others as I was starting Promentum. While I had been diagnosed with ADD for many years, I found over and over again that people echoed the challenges I expressed (but if you aren’t starting a business, you don’t feel the urgency to change things). The picture became crystal clear as I started speaking on generational issues on behalf of The Center For Generational Kinetics. I had the opportunity to spend time with leaders of companies across the country, and as I heard them expressing their deepest concerns about their millennial employees in particular, I began to notice how much of them had to with their habits around technology. Over time, it became clear that what they were expressing was more than a generational issue. The impact of digital technology and multi-use devices was creating perpetual distractedness for everyone.
Q. What was the impetus for beginning a career in this field, speaking publicly about distraction and helping businesses communicate more effectively in a distracted world?
My middle school teachers are to blame. Jokes aside, not only did teachers result in my ADD diagnosis, but two amazing teachers identified my knack for debate and speech. I had quite a bit of success in speech early on, leading to a relentless focus on the study of rhetoric as I grew older. The practical move from personal battle with focus to professional communicator on it would occur much later. I found myself in a unique position as a speaker on generational issues at a time when people felt a need to hear more and more about how to more intentionally manage their lives in a distracted age, so I simply responded to the call. I spent years studying the science of human attention and the recent impact of digital technology on the brain because I needed it if I wanted my business to succeed. What started personal formed the foundation of the practical methods I use to help leaders facing these issues. Quite frankly, I was simply in the right place at the right time with the right background to speak to this particular need.
Q. People blame smartphones for our short attention spans. Do you believe ditching our mobile phones and deactivating social media is the answer? Why or why not?
If only it was that simple. But of course it isn’t. And we all know that kind of extreme reaction isn’t practical today, either. We have become so dependent in business and in our personal lives on our devices that ditching them isn’t a possibility. We have to work harder to become more clever in living intelligently with them. The real questions to ask are, “How can I use my phone as a valuable tool rather than becoming used by the phone as though I am the tool?” and “How can I strategically approach my device so that it doesn’t have total freedom to distract me and toss demands at me every moment of the day?”
Q. There’s been a real call for mindfulness in business. How do we strike a balance between engaging with the world around us in the present moment, and staying on top of all the details, requests, emails, and obligations of our busy work and home life?
We can learn a lot by looking at the balanced approach most of us have taken to dieting and fitness. For most of history, no one needed a gym or a treadmill. But then our dietary habits changed and we suddenly did. None of us are naturally wired to want to workout or to resist tasty sugars, fats, and salts. That’s why most of the population is out of shape. But, about 15 years ago a movement towards fitness and dietary discipline began, and now a growing number of people are committed to fighting the unhealthy tide. My hope is that the same kind of revolution will occur with our relationship to digital connectivity. Right now our digital habits are just as bad as our eating habits were in the ’80s and early ’90s. But I believe there’s hope that a movement for living a more balanced digital lifestyle is on the horizon, that people will become increasingly aware of what’s being lost every time they neglect the world in right front of them for whatever is in their phones, that we will begin to preserve and protect the most precious mental asset we have: our attention.
Q. What’s the single biggest thing we can do today to avoid distractions and build focus?
My number one strategy is to build what I call a focus vault. By vault I mean a place you can go to where the world won’t interfere with your work. A focus vault is simply an unreachable, stationary place where you go by yourself to focus on your most important work for a limited period of time. Just like you go to a gym to get in shape for a certain amount of time every day (or a few times a week), you need to begin by entering a place like that—but for your mind. A place you intentionally set apart to achieve better mental performance, where you cease to be available to the world so you can fully attend to your most important work. You should try to enter this vault of yours once a day (ideally in the morning). This is a time to recalibrate, re-prioritize, and re-focus. I recommend starting with 20 minutes a day, with the goal of eventually focusing for 45 minutes at a time.
Q. What kind of impact will our tech-focused world have on future generations and their ability to focus?
In a single word: profound. Our tech-focused world is going to have a profound impact on everyone entering the workforce from this point forward. The good news is, we know what the challenge will be and though it will only become harder and harder, it isn’t likely to change. The key is to start now by intentionally rethinking your personal approach and your organizations approach to communication collaboration so that your values, procedures give your people the education, support, and structure they need to strategically focus on their most important work regardless of the countless distractions competing over their attention throughout the day.
Curt Steinhorst was a keynote speaker at IncentiveWorks 2016.