In a Boundaryless World, Peak Performance is More Difficult than Ever

I’m just back from a whirlwind two-day unplanned trip to New York City. I was invited to join a small group of entrepreneurs and futurists in a wide-ranging conversation about the future of work.

Our host, the Chief Marketing Officer of a Fortune-50 company, asked us to help him understand not just the way work is changing, but what kinds of challenges individuals and teams are experiencing today. He’s interested, for obvious reasons, in focusing his organization’s service offerings and value proposition on ways to help address those challenges and enhance his clients’ performance possibilities.

While there is no way I could even begin to summarize our high-energy, two-hour conversation, I was struck by one theme that came up several times: 

Multitasking businesswoman

We are living in a “boundaryless” world that’s full of interruptions from many different sources. And that makes it imperative for each of us to learn how to set and manage our own boundaries, whether those boundaries are between work and family, time and place, employees and contractors, internal and external processes, employees and customers, or coffee shops and conference rooms.

As I’m fond of saying, the good news is that you can work any time, any place. And the bad news is that you can work any time, any place. It’s definitely a two-edged sword.

It wasn’t always like that

When I first entered the workforce many years ago, the boundary between work and the rest of my life was clear, and almost impervious. I had to go to the office because that’s where all my files were, and that’s where I had to be to meet with my colleagues. And that’s also where I had to be to use the company’s long-distance telephone lines.

My company had just two WATS lines – Wide Area Telephone Service – that were fixed-rate and thus relatively inexpensive. But that meant I often had to wait for an open line before I could place a long-distance call.

The pace of work was – in hindsight – relatively slow, and it generally ended at 5 PM when everyone headed for the parking lot (it was a suburban campus) and went home to spend the evening with family and friends. Yes, some of us carried a few files home in a leather briefcase, but generally when we left the office we were leaving work behind, to wait for another day.

Clearly, that world doesn’t exist anymore. Most us don’t miss it, but we’re now living with a whole new set of stresses and challenges.

The Age of Endless Conversation

Because time and distance don’t separate us from each other the way they used to, most of us are engaged in multiple extended conversations, leveraging all kinds of social media. We have “Friends” and “Followers” who listen to us, and we listen to them. We jump back and forth from one topic to another, and from one part of our lives to another.

At work we participate in multiple projects, while in our personal lives we have conversations with life partners, children, friends, pastors, retail store clerks, and others; and we follow politicians, sports figures, journalists, Hollywood entertainers, rock musicians, and sometimes even our parents. And we hold all those conversations all day long, whether we are “at work” or not.

It’s a Short-Attention Span World

Our lives are so fragmented that a recent study sponsored by Microsoft found that the average attention span of a human being is now just 8 seconds!

As reported in the UK’s The Telegraph last May:

The average human’s attention span is… oh look, a bird!

According to scientists, the age of smartphones has left humans with such a short attention span even a goldfish can hold a thought for longer.

Researchers surveyed 2,000 participants in Canada and studied the brain activity of 112 others using electroencephalograms.

The results showed the average human attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in 2000, or around the time the mobile revolution began, to eight seconds.

Goldfish, meanwhile, are believed to have an attention span of nine seconds.



Yet there is also growing evidence that we do our best work when we are focused, uninterrupted, and in “flow,” that state of mind in which time slows down, self vanishes, and you experience a strong sense of personal competence. You may have heard of the 2008 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It’s well worth revisiting.

And for a 2015 update, visit The Flow Genome Project, a contemporary initiative headed by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal that is creating a much deeper understanding of the biology and the neuroscience behind the heightened states of awareness and focus that accompany peak performance experiences. Their most significant message: interruptions kill flow.

But the practical question remains: what can you do to restore a sense of control in your life, to create the boundaries and the focus you need to achieve peak performance?

That’s my focus for next week; I’m compiling some new rules you can adopt to take back control of your time, your life, your productivity, and ultimately your ability to lead a life that matters. Stay tuned.

Contact me today for a free 30-minute conversation about how you can design meetings that matter by applying New Rules to produce flow, focus, and peak performance for you and your team.


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