The Challenge Of Promoting Your Practice In An Era Of Information Overload And Limited Attention

Time. Money. Most of us in private practice say we don’t have enough of either one. But some recent experiences of mine suggest there’s something else even more scarce and precious that is profoundly affecting our lives – and how we promote our practices.

It all started two weeks ago when I was speaking with a couple in their 40s, who said they felt more like ‘roommates’ than a close, married couple. They described their nightly routine: 1) turn on the TV; 2) sit on different sides of the sofa, each with an iPhone and an iPad in their laps; 3) play games, go on Facebook, check email, post on Twitter, send texts, and look up info about the actors in the shows while ‘watching’ TV. “When do you talk to each other?” I asked, which elicited a strange, puzzled look from both of them. “What do you mean? We talk while we’re watching TV!”

This reminded me of the disconcerting answer I have gotten at every couples’ workshop I have led in the past ten years. I have asked hundreds of couples this question: “How often do you talk to each other at home, other than problem-solving, without the TV or cell phone or computer on?” The answer: 98% say “never” and 2% say “very rarely”. Splitting attention between devices clearly seems to be preferable to conversation with our partner.

I then thought of a friend who complained that whenever he and his wife went on vacation with another couple, they would do something fun, sit down for a meal, and then the other couple and his wife would spend most of the meal uploading comments and pictures of whatever they just did to Facebook instead of talking about it, and then texting other friends who were not on Facebook. He felt isolated and left out. For these people, the virtualization of the past experience is more important than the experience itself.

And lastly, I recalled watching my teenage daughter and five friends having lunch at a local restaurant. While chatting with the owner, I noticed all six girls staring at their cell phone screens, texting. I was struck by the speed of their actions – they were easily processing four or five texts every minute. The texting was interrupted with genuine emotional responses – giggles, sighs, exasperated grimaces, delight – but each response was fleeting, quickly replaced by the next reaction.

This doesn’t happen at work or when making decisions/solving problems at home. It’s in our free time, when we can choose what to do, when many people seem to prefer this incessant multitasking – focusing attention on something for less than a minute (and often just seconds), before switching to the next item. We can send & read a tweet or a status update on Facebook in that time. We can watch or hear a Breaking News headline. We can relay a comment or two to our partners. But our eyes and ears are always moving, darting, divided, looking for the next piece of information or stimulation. The information on the screen and in our environment has to constantly change to keep our attention. And if it doesn’t, we change the channel, click to another site, download a new app or pick up another device. The staggering number of choices that our technology offers us has created a sort of cultural ADD.

So it strikes me that the most precious resource in our lives today is ATTENTION. With what little spare time we may have, we allocate it into smaller and smaller bits. To make matters worse, a recent study said the average consumer is bombarded with an average of 3000 commercial messages every day. Everyone and everything is vying for our limited attention. So adding to this cultural ADD is the necessary skill we develop to deal with this onslaught: we constantly filter information, and discard most of it instantly when it doesn’t meet our criteria for meaning. We delete, discard and avoid far more than we attend.

This obviously has profound effects for our personal relationships, but what does this have to do with private practice? Everything. In marketing our practices, how do we break through this clutter, this filtering process, this information overload – when people’s attention is so brief and diluted, and the default setting in our brains is to instantly delete or ignore most information? How can we craft a message of any depth – that’s not superficial – that gets through the filter? How can we convey any shred of our years of training and experience – in a minute? And given these very real constraints, what medium works best to get eyes AND ears in sync for more than a minute?

If you’d like help in dealing with these challenges, check out our program entitled The Business of Psychotherapy: Creating Your Ideal Practice, which addresses many of the issues listed in this article.

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