While the link between attention and excellence remains hidden most of the time, it ripples through almost everything we seek to accomplish.
Earlier this week I had lunch with my wife’s father in law. The restaurant was reasonably busy but I noticed that several of the people at the occupied tables had their heads down and thumbs scrolling some sort of device. This is not a comment on technology, rather one on our attention. There are more distractions than ever before, and we can have the world in our pocket. Nevertheless, our attention is an extremely scarce resource rivaled perhaps only by our time. Attention is a finite resource that we must constantly decide where to allocate.
We must continually strike a balance between not paying enough attention to something such as family members and friends with paying so much attention that no details escapes us. (Do you need to remember the license plate number of each car you see on your way to work?)
Daniel Goleman, the author of Focus, explains that distractions are more than minor annoyances. They have longer lasting impacts. For example, being distracted while reading creates gaps in comprehension. How many things are you doing right now? In addition to reading this article you may have music playing in the background, or a podcast, you may also be working on a project in another window. How well have you been focusing on what you are reading? Time for a quiz, who did I have lunch with this week?
I had lunch with my father, my wife’s father-in-law would be my father. It may have taken you a second to recall this detail, or you may have skipped over it altogether in your less than focused state. Don’t feel bad, Goleman uses a similar test in the book, which I failed, and also shamed me into rereading the previous few pages before my attention started to wander. The point is: our attention is a finite resource that once squandered takes time to regenerate. Most of us admit that we could be more focused and that doing so would produce better results. So why aren’t we more focused?
Audit Your Attention
"Attention works much like a muscle—use it poorly and it can wither; work it well and it grows."
I find it interesting that in English the verb we commonly utilize to refer to the use of attention is “to pay.” We pay attention, not temporarily part with or receive without effort. Pay, that is a commitment, it implies a transaction, an exchange. You are giving some of your attention to receive something in return. What kind of investment do you currently receive for your attention?
We budget, at least hopefully, our money but how well do we budget where to spend our attention? Do we spend our attention as well as we spend our money? We talk about priorities but do those receive our full attention or only what is left over? The simple practice of jotting down what you think about during the day or what your mind wanders to when working on other projects can aid you in fixing your lapses in attention.
Goleman quotes an economist who said, in 1977 in regards to the increasing amount of information in the world that, “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
Knowing where your attention lies is the first step to better investing it and avoid attention poverty. The good news is you can start small.
Ring A Gong
"Tightly focused attention gets fatigued—much like an overworked muscle—when we push to the point of cognitive exhaustion. The signs of mental fatigue, such as a drop in effectiveness and a rise in distractedness and irritability, signify that the mental effort needed to sustain focus has depleted."
Goleman shares a story about witnessing a meeting where the participants were anything but interested, with a few checking email on their smartphones. Then one of the participants said “time for some mindfulness moments” then stood and rang a gong. Golman remarked, “We all sat there together in silence for a few moments until the gong rang again, and then resumed our meeting—but with renewed energy. With this cue the group is able to pause, clear their heads and have a renewed sense of focus.”
Our attention is limited, when exhausted it is highly ineffective. Think about how many times you have to read something when you are tired before it starts to make sense. The good news is that once attention is lost it can be found again. The physical act of ringing a gong, or something else can provide enough of a reminder to pause, regroup, and then draw your thoughts back to where they were before you got too far off track. We can, in essence, replenish our emptied attention span. In contrast, surfing the web or watching TV will actually continue to deplete attention because of the stimulation. Therefore, to effectively recharge your supply, be smart about what you do with your breaks.
"Setting aside some regular reflective time in the daily or weekly schedule might help us get beyond the firefight-of-the-day mentality, to take stock and look ahead."
Once we audit our attention and then recharge we will have enough attention at our disposal that we can invest it in ways that help to pay dividends in the future. Goleman explains that having a dedicated time to step back from the day to day habits and rituals allows us to reflect and grow. He cites examples of Congressmen, professors, and CEOs who all agree that “you need to find some quiet time in your day just to reflect.” With a few short minutes we gauge where we are and lessons we’ve learned and where to go next.
I enjoy reading articles and links on Twitter, it is a personally curated fire hose of information tailored to my interests. However, because it is so information rich I can spend FAR too much time when I should be focused on doing other things, like studying for finals. So I decided to start tracking how much time I spend on Twitter or reading articles so I could audit my attention. I also moved my Twitter client to a screen on my phone that it now takes six swipes/taps to access. Now these acts might sound too simple to be effective but they were enough of a gong ringing to stop me before my attention was completely diverted. For me, seeing the results of my audit was enough to jolt me into a different behavior. I have tried to use this attention that I had previously allocated elsewhere to do more thinking, writing and reflecting. The result is I have gained some “obvious” insights in solving problems that I failed to previously see and overall seem to be in a better mood.
How would you like to better invest your attention?