Attention spans are getting shorter in part due to the proliferation of new media, including the internet, email and texting. That is one conclusion that Maggie Jackson draws in her 2008 book, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. The net result, as Jackson told NPR’s Diane Rehm, is that people do not spend enough time thinking through issues. Critical thinking is left by the wayside. The problem affects not simply young people who are growing up with hyper-mobile technologies; it affects adults, too.
Loss of attention can be a factor in business. How often have we seen mistakes made because people are too much in a hurry or because they have too many things on their plates? The result is that we do not do one job well, we end up doing twenty things “half-good.” One way to counteract this trend, and which Jackson recommends, is to spend more time thinking critically. Here are some ways to sharpen your critical thinking skills.
Size up the situation. Know what is happening as well as what is not happening is essential. Senior managers who are good at their jobs do this intuitively. They drop into a meeting, ask a few trenchant questions, solicit input, and then call for ideas.
Debate the alternatives. So far so good. All ideas are not equal. So often successful projects are the result of genuine collaboration where people build on each others’ ideas and contribution so that the net result is a synthesis, not the product of a single mind. Debating alternatives takes time but it is so necessary.
Reflect on the process. If there is one area of critical thinking that is overlooked, it is reflection. No one seems to have time for it. I remember interviewing the late Skip LeFauvre, the former president of Saturn Corporation, about finding time for reflection. Skip’s advice was cogent: put it on your calendar. Reflection need not be saved for outcomes; it is often wise to evaluate the process as it applies to progress.
One way to improve critical thinking skills is to keep a journal. The act of writing imposes two disciplines: organization and reflection. You have put down your thoughts in order and you are forced to consider your actions and their outcomes.
The ability to multi-task is not a bad thing. Management at every level, not simply at the top, is a juggling act. You have to discipline yourself to engage and disengage as attention is needed to situations, problems and opportunities. Speed is essential and that is where time for critical thinking gets compressed.
New media is here to stay. Asking people to stop using the Internet or texting is not simply foolhardy; it is stupid. We stay connected to others through the exchange of information and we need to keep that connection going. We simply need to manage our virtual time more wisely so we can invest time on thinking how to do our jobs with more forethought as well as attention.
John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership development consultant, executive coach, author, and speaker. In 2010 Top Leadership Gurus named John one of the world’s top 25 leadership experts. John’s newest book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up (Amacom 2009). Readers are welcome to visit John’s website, www.johnbaldoni.com