Pay Attention! Why Attention Is the Foundation for Self-Management
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This article is an adaptation of an essay that appeared in Mindful.org
“Effective executives do not splinter themselves. They concentrate on one task if at all possible...I have never encountered an executive who remains effective while tackling more than two tasks at a time.” Peter F. Drucker
This article, the first in a series of articles/webinars by celebrated Drucker-inspired executive effectiveness expert, Dr. Jeremy Hunter, presents the building blocks of self-management and how they fit together to create mindfulness, that is, self-awareness & self-regulation.
Dr. Hunter he shows us why and how focused attention is the key to getting work done. Indeed, attention is the foundation for self-management. "You are what you attend to,” Hunter says. Once the concept of attention is understood and internalized, knowledge workers will be on the road to making full use of their greatest asset, their ability to think in a logical, disciplined manner.
We need to talk. Not just you and me, but all of us. Have you noticed that we’re not connecting like we once did? We’re more distracted and conversations aren’t as rich.
Something feels hollow. We’re not working through the tough stuff like we did before.
The intense focus that was once there seems to have vanished. With it went the satisfaction that comes from deep thinking.
Instead, what’s there now is an incessant feeling of being off-balance and leaving things half-baked. We’re more edgy and reactive, scattered and less in-tune.
It’s starting to feel like a new normal and that can’t be good. We need to talk to get things back on track. What I’m talking about is how we’re using our attention.
Managing Attention: The Next Management Challenge
We’ve been neglecting attention and now it’s become one of management’s most essential challenges.
Why? How we manage our attention drives how we manage ourselves. How we manage our collective attention drives collective performance and with it sustained success.
The management implication is clear. As work orients toward information and knowledge, as the number of inputs and distractions increases, controlling our own attention becomes an essential skill to master.
Failing to do so undermines the ability to perform, connect, create, innovate, and enjoy life.
This series of essays will explore why attention is important, the costs of mismanaging it, and proven strategies to better shepherd this essential resource.
I hope these pieces offer inspiration and tools to raise the subject at work and home and help make positive changes.
Attention is the Most Essential Human Resource
Why care about attention? Attention is the most essential human resource. Attention is the energy people use to engage the world. How we use attention affects everything we do.
Attention is fundamental to our lives, to our relationships, to our quality of work. In fact, what we attend to creates our lives.
Whether it’s spreadsheets or Shakespeare, we are what we give our attention to. In addition to what we give attention to, how we give attention matters as well.
Think of one of your most engaged, in-the-zone moments at work. Chances are you were intensely focused on a project or campaign.
Focused attention leads to our most exhilarating moments of being alive. Facilitating quality of attention is essential for creating top performance. Furthermore, deep focus promotes deep thinking. You need the former to have the latter. That’s not all.
Attention Drives Connections Essential for Management
Focused attention drives meaningful human connection.
Relationships are forged by the exchange of attention. How did it feel when you were on a call and the other person responded with the telltale robotic voice that betrayed their distraction? Yeah, not good.
How connected is the family staring at their individual phones while eating dinner? How does this show up at work?
When the business is based on relationship, such as professional services, quality of attention is the foundation for sustained success.
A founding partner of a top-flight Bay Area accounting firm discussed how her ability to sense nuanced reactions in her clients uncovers and resolves their unspoken concerns.
This “magic” talent of hers was key to deepening their connection. When she understood her skill as a function of attention, it helped her to both be more conscious of how she used it as well as making it more teachable to younger associates.
The enhanced value her firm created meant a larger payoff for the client and resulted in long-term business success. She showed how quality of attention drives quality of relationship.
We Pay a High Price for Mismanaging Attention
What happens when there aren’t effective attention management strategies in place?
Members of a leadership team at a global aerospace firm I work with routinely describe their distracting work environment in terms of war. “There is a lot of ‘Incoming!’ around here,” one manager confessed.
“I feel like we’re always getting ambushed,” said another. “My battle plan for the day gets thrown off by 9:00.” Scattered attention feels like war because we never know where the next “attack” is going to come from. The costs of this ongoing combat are high.
Being pulled away from whatever you’re doing right now damages productivity.
Unwelcome intrusions come with greater stress, exhaustion, and physical pain. Even a 2.8-second interruption can cause a doubling of mistakes. Once interrupted, it takes nearly half an hour to return to the original task. It’s also a flow-killer.
To achieve the same level of deep focus takes another 15 minutes.
So, where are these intrusions coming from?
The number one source of interruptions is other workers. Nice job, humans.
What makes focus challenging is that the supply of attention is limited. We can’t perceive everything at once.
The human sensory system can absorb around 11 million bits of information per second, the amount we’re consciously aware of is between 40 and 120.
So we have a limited number of chips to play, but we give too little thought to how to best manage them. Instead, we frequently mismanage them through multitasking. Reducing multitasking means increasing effectiveness.
Many highly successful people assert their productivity and the quality of work increased significantly once they learned the difference between the urgent and important, and how to systematically abandon all forms of time wasters—from never-ending "gotta-minute" interruptions to the tendency to become victims of the "multitasking trap."
Multitasking Makes us Stupid, and You’re Not as Good at it as You Think
More than a decade’s worth of research shows that splintering attention between two or more things undermines performance, increases mistakes, and makes us shallow learners.
Furthermore, the more we multitask, the worse we tend to be at multitasking. Instead of becoming masters of our domain, multitasking makes us better at being distracted and weakens self-control.
Multitasking also undermines the ability to disregard the irrelevant. Instead, like a frantic colleague who marks all email “!!” urgent, everything becomes a priority. In environments of incessant distractions, heavy multitaskers are unable to stay focused on what’s important.
In other words, “Hey! Look at that squirrel!” It seems that many of us are in denial about what multitasking does to our minds, our work, and relationships, or maybe we just don’t notice?
Yet, many leaders are waking up to the essential importance of attention. Though it seems like rowing against the tide, progressive leaders are starting conversations about valuing attention.
They no longer see mismanaging their mind as a badge of honor. They are mobilizing effective responses to improve the quality of attention for themselves, their teams, and families.
In the next essay, I’ll share with you some of their solutions.
Jeremy Hunter, Ph.D. is Founding Director of the Executive Mind Leadership Institute and Associate Professor of Practice at the Peter F. Drucker Graduate School of Management in Claremont, CA. His pioneering courses on Self-Management build on Peter Drucker’s assertion “before you can manage anyone else, you have to manage yourself first.” He has been awarded Professor of the Year five times. When in need of life-saving surgery, over a dozen former students stepped forward as organ donors.
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