Have you noticed? The topic of attention is getting a lot of attention.
Daniel Goleman — the guy who put “emotional intelligence” in the spotlight two decades ago — is now focusing on the power of attention with his newest book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence.
Tips for improving our ability to focus show up in publications as diverse as Oprah, Huffington Post, Psychology Today, Family Circle, Parents and Forbes — and in thousands of Web sites, blogs, books and brain-training courses and tools.
The interest is, in part, because most of us are too busy and too distracted. At the same time, advances in neuroscience are creating a clearer picture of what happens to our brains when we are unable to focus and giving clues about how to boost our ability to pay attention.
CCL’s Pete Ronayne works at the intersection of leadership, high-performance and neuroscience. He says the buzz about attention (if not all the details) is legitimate.
“Attention is critical — perhaps the most essential resource a leader has,” says Ronayne. “When we are distracted and unfocused, we are less productive, make more mistakes and end up taking longer to complete our work.”
“Most of us are clueless about what’s happening in our head; we don’t realize how unfocused we are and how diminished our attention span can become over the course of the day,” Ronayne continues.
As a result of this lack of focus, we don’t listen or learn as effectively. We struggle to make decisions in line with our priorities. We don’t sustain our thoughts long enough to be productive. In contrast, effective leaders are clear about their priorities, capable of guiding and controlling their attention, and able to get — and stay — engaged.
Also challenging: Attention is an energy-expensive activity. Too often we spend attention thoughtlessly on non-priorities, using up precious attentional funds. If we don’t replenish the reserves, we limit our ability to pay attention to more important things later. We don’t have it in us to have high-quality conversations or process complex issues. This has both immediate and long-term effects for leaders who are paid to make high-quality decisions and build trusting relationships, Ronayne explains.
Another problem is that the more we live in a distracted, overloaded, inattentive state, the more the brain “forgets” how to focus. Pervasive technology, constant interruption and the practice of “multitasking” create patterns or grooves in the brain that over time make it difficult to sustain thought and attention. We literally train our brains to be inattentive.
“Aristotle said, ‘we are what we repeatedly do’,” says Ronayne. “So many of us are so used to not focusing, we now have to practice focus and attention. The good news is that if you exercise the attention circuitry, it gets stronger.”
To counteract the habits of inattention, Ronayne suggests creating a few new habits:
- Give up multitasking. It is a myth that we can attend to two things at once. The brain can only devote focused attention on one thing at a time. Sure, it can rapidly switch back and forth between a low-attention task like drinking coffee and the focus needed to lead a conference call. But our hard-wired, attentional limits prevent us from writing a proposal well and listening actively to a conference call at the same time. Pick one. Do it well.
- Avoid scheduling meetings late in the day. By 4 or 4:30, our brains are usually tired and we are not fully listening. Schedule important meetings for the first part of the day.
- Take breaks. This is most consistently violated, even when we know better. We are not designed for long meetings, presentations or work sessions. Our focus starts to shift and fade after 40-45 minutes. After one hour, our brains naturally check out, and we’re not paying attention. Try to meet for and work in 50-minute blocks, then take a 10-minute break. Get up and move around, stretch and eat some fruit to replenish your brain.
- Get outdoors. Think about how many work days you have when you don’t get outside until you leave for the day — this is an attention killer. Shift your environment — have an outdoor conversation with a coworker, sit in the sun at lunch or just head outside for a quick breath of air. Other ways to boost your brain include taking a short nap, a walk, a yoga break or brief meditation. These “rechargers” give you an attention boost and enhance productivity and mood.
- Sleep. The quality and quantity of our sleep affects our brain — impacting a host of functions, including memory, attitude, decision-making and innovation. When you are tired, it makes focusing your attention even more difficult. The vast majority of us need eight to nine hours nightly to regularly perform at our peak.