Business

The next big opportunity: Tools that cure our short attention spans

A cat watching a cat GIF

Above: A cat watching a cat GIF

Image Credit: mekohb/Imgur

Jon Coker is Investment Director at MMC Ventures.

As a technology investor and an avid tech consumer, I am increasingly aware of a divergence between mainstream consumer technology and thought-leading behavioral analysis. New devices and applications thrust ever-increasing amounts of information into our minds while everything we learn about human behavior tells us that this type of distraction reduces productivity and creativity.

To be clear, I am not arguing against innovation or suggesting that this innovation should in some way be restricted. I am more interested in awareness of the habitual behavior created by its usage and thinking about how technology can help use these new tools in a balanced and productive way. This is a challenge that I face as a user, regulating my own behavior; as a father, thinking about how I want my son to interact with technology; and as an investor, how I identify investment opportunities that fit with what I see as a coming trend.

The distractions we face

The tools that we use in everyday life have evolved far quicker than our brains. We are perfectly designed to survive in a harsh wilderness rather than an open-plan office filled with electronic devices. With that design comes some challenges. We are programmed to constantly scan for new information that could be of risk to us, like a lion hiding in the long grass, or social, like finding a potential mate. This bit might not have changed that much.

Unfortunately, we are not able to discern the importance of new information until we have distracted ourselves from the task we are doing. (We can’t actually multitask.) Because we have already processed existing information and decided it is unlikely to eat us for breakfast, we put greater emphasis on new information.

In real life, rather than sub-Saharan millions-of-years-ago life, this new information is not a shape moving in the long grass but email, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Yammer, IM, voicemail, news streams, TV, etc. It is both constantly new and social, the perfect combination for distraction. As a knowledge worker, the tasks that are most valuable to us, and allow us to stand out from the crowd, all require periods of concentration. The creative cycle of learning, innovating, planning, and executing require periods of focus and reflection and the modern world does not make this easy.

Second, our brain changes physical shape with behavior. So habits, like reading every email as it arrives in your inbox actually change how your brain is wired. Asking someone who checks their email every five minutes to work for ninety minutes on a single task is equivalent to asking Usain Bolt to compete effectively against Mo Farah in the 10k event.

Third, our brains use a lot of energy making decisions. Habits are important as they bypass the decision-making process. Consistently resisting checking your email will use a lot more energy than not having the desire to check your emails in the first place. Focusing on a task takes will power to resist distraction and uses energy. This energy depletes and we find it harder to resist after time. Most people will find it harder to resist a chocolate bar when they are tired or stressed. (I certainly do.) This means that we need to both drive good habitual behavior (not getting distracted) with tools that hide some of the distraction.

We need new tools to tackle this

The points I make above are hardly new or controversial. Both business leaders and general workers are starting to understand the need to address these issues and as an investor, that points to an opportunity.

We recently invested in KnowledgeMill, which is an email management tool focused on reducing the amount of time knowledge workers spend in their email inbox. We have just started using it at MMC and it has enabled me to reduce the time I spend managing my email.

For future investment opportunities, I think about what kind of tools could help us solve this problem. I would like to see tools that measure your behavior across applications then use gamification to incentivize you to behave more productively but I’ve not quite got my head around how they overcome a few critical issues:

1. Privacy: How do you use an application to track your behavior without it seeing everything you do, creating horrible privacy implications?

2. ROI: How do you measure the improvement in productivity when the gains are likely to be long term compared to the visible short-term impact of replying slower?

3. Connectivity: How do you close off connections for long periods of time when increasingly we are using cloud-based applications?

4. Virality: How do you drive habitual usage of your application and viral uptake without using the very methods you are trying to counter?

I don’t have the answers to these questions but I would love to hear from any entrepreneurs who think they do. I am sure that technology alone cannot change this behavior. It will take education, individual discipline, and a company culture that embraces a productive working style.

Finally, as a father I have a more controversial worry. We are changing our brains, and I can’t help wonder if we will look back on the proliferation of short term, relatively unimportant information continually thrust in front of us in the same way that we now look at alcohol, tobacco, or sugar — addictive substances that cause physical change and can inhibit function.

Surely there is a balance to be found between the good that comes from a connected, flatter world and the increasing distractions we face.

Jon Coker is a director of MMC Ventures, having joined in 2007. He heads up the investment team which is responsible for leading new investments and also represents MMC on portfolio company boards. Jon has lead responsibility for SafeGuard, iJento, KnowledgeMill, Consilium, and Creativity Software.


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