How are you managing your Attention?

Where is your attention right now? Perhaps you’re reading this on your mobile or tablet and app notifications are pinging and appearing on your screen?  Maybe you’re on your laptop or desktop and e-mails are arriving in your in box?  Are the kids calling for your attention or distracting you?  Does the phone pull at your attention as you read?  Do the voices of colleagues get your attention or are you distracted when they knock on your office door?

Who’s vying for your attention?

You have to decide.  What am I going to focus my attention on?

We live in a busy world.  Information and data crowd around us.  People are vying for our attention all the time in person, by e-mail, on the phone, via social media, online, in magazines and newspapers, on TV.  Strangers, friends, lovers, family, colleagues, acquaintances, products, organisations, governments, doctrines and society distract us throughout our day.  To the extent that it can be a real challenge to complete any task without being distracted in some way.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed when there are so many bees buzzing around our heads or flashing lights of distraction that grab our attention.  No wonder we find it so hard to keep track of it all.

The work environment is no exception to this.  And while there are Covid-related challenges that divert our attention, like home-schooling, health concerns, working from home, weak boundaries around working hours, isolation, lack of touch and connection, staying focused on what is important in this moment is harder than ever.

Where are you Focusing?

So, how can you manage your attention?  It comes down to focus.  As I asked at the start, “Where is your attention?”  It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed when your attention is not focused.  Your brain is designed to consciously focus on one thing.  It focuses on fine detail, or on the big picture.  Either way, it requires focus.  But it requires a different kind of focus.

Fine-detail Focus

Let’s say your attention is focused on the fine detail of an e-mail, a conversation or a LinkedIn post.  If you’re doing this effectively, you concentrate on each individually.  You slow down, focus and bring your attention inward.  You get clarity and feel like you have a quality connection with the person, article or e-mail you’re interacting with.  It’s the slowing down that tells you you’re managing your attention.  Making the most of the time you give and therefore improving your productivity.  When you get this right, times slows down, you’re in the zone, you’re incredibly productive and usually the quality of your work is very high.

We all know what it feels like to do these things with one eye on something else.  Or you’re trying to rush through it to get to the next thing.  You’re connection is poor, therefore your comprehension is low, you’re not really taking in what you’re reading or hearing.  There’s a sense of frustration, impatience, even resentment as you try to rush through and move on.  Inevitably the job is half-baked, and you might even have to go back and do it again.  Which really negatively affects your productivity and motivation.

Big-Picture focus

Alternatively, let’s say you’re attention is on big picture thinking.  Maybe you’re doing some brain-storming, creating a 5-year plan, thinking creatively about new directions or reviewing the year.  If you’re doing this effectively, you concentrate on opening out.  Not focusing on the details but rather on the larger vision or scope.  You still slow down and focus, but with your attention outward.  Your clarity comes through connecting openly.  You might even notice that your eyes have a broader focus, taking in the room rather than the laser focus of detailed thinking.

Deciding where to place your attention

So, you have to decide.  What am I going to focus my attention on?  Deciding is a focusing tool that aligns your attention on what you feel matters.  If you prioritise, you focus attention.  Decide and act.  Do not allow yourself to be distracted.  And if you do get distracted, use compassion to bring yourself back to focused attention.

When I am working, I get distracted.  The phone rings.  Something else, unrelated, pops into my mind.  Someone wants to talk to me.  I have another meeting to go to, there is other work to do.  But, when I get distracted, I practice bringing myself back to the thing at hand.

Meditation is the practice of attention.  It uses tools to focus on like your breath, a sound, a flickering flame.  You keep your attention there, as best you can.  When you notice that your mind has wondered, and it will, bring it back to your focusing tool, lovingly, kindly.  Do not chastise yourself.  And if you do, notice that, and use it as an opportunity to practice self-care, self- appreciation and gratitude.

Attention as practice

Attention management at work is the same.  It is a practice.  And there are things you can do to help yourself.

Mobiles and Tablets

Mobiles and tablets are great, but they are multi-functional devices.  They mix work and personal life.  While you write e-mails, notifications can pull you away.  People talk about falling down the rabbit hole that is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media channels.  People have told me they have lost entire evenings on social channels or watching YouTube videos and felt bad for allowing themselves to get distracted.  Important things don’t get done.  Sleep can be affected.  Relationships can suffer.  Perhaps most important of all is the relationship with yourself.

When you need to focus your attention, put your phone or tablet on silent and disengage the vibration.  Turn it off.  Put on the “do not disturb” function.  Focus on this task.  Stay in this moment.

The Rewards of Distraction

We get dopamine and adrenaline spikes when notifications ping and let us know we are in demand.  It feels great to get these spikes in our bodies.  It’s what makes the gadgets and their apps so addictive.  But we can learn to work with our biology.  Keeping our purpose and values in sight allows us to choose whether we focus on what is more important to us at our core, or what gives us short term pleasure that leaves us feeling empty and unfulfilled.  If we want productivity, calm and peace, we can practice managing our attention and acknowledging what brings us long-term rewards.

Mastering Attention

I too feel the fear of missing out if I do not check my social media feeds or in boxes.  But I also know these notifications aren’t going anywhere.  They’ll be there when I’m ready to look at them.  With that knowledge, the rest is choice.  Do I decide to be mastered by my social channels and the many other distractions in my life?  Or do I decide to master when I look at them and for how long?

Competing for Attention

Having said all of that, there are many things that are important to you that compete for your attention.  It’s not just technology.  There are partners, kids, parent, friends, family, colleagues and yourself.  And there are the responsibilities that come with those relationships.  And so, you have to prioritise in any given moment.  Using your purpose and values to prioritise where you place your attention allows you to be mindful about the choices you make.

It is important to me to have my morning routine as a great way to start the day.  I get up early to complete it if I have an early start.  I’ll go to bed earlier when I have that early start if I feel I need the sleep.  I focus my attention so that I am well prepared for the day.  Which allows me to focus my attention on others throughout the day.  If I feel depleted and I cannot give my all, I pause, take a break, and prioritise myself for the sake of my own well-being.  It allows me to be in better service to others.

What do you need to focus on?

Where do you notice you are most distracted?  How is that serving you?  If you’d like it to be different, what changes could you make?  Which of the suggestions in this article might help?  What ideas have you come up with?

Pass it on

What did you find useful in this article about attention management?  Do you know someone who might benefit from those same useful insights?  If so, please forward the article to them and make a difference to their day.  They’ll appreciate you for it.

*inspired by University of Birmingham‘s ‘Be You’ with Michael Acton Smith, CEO of wellbeing app Calm

How are you getting on with managing your attention at work and home?

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