Focusing On Attention

With our daughters home from university for the summer, there are changes in our household. The largest is the smallest in size- a Boston terrier / Chihuahua mix puppy. And to my delight, he has taught me several important lessons in the few weeks he has been a member of our family.
Not having had a dog previously, I had not realized that they are the embodiment of living in the moment. There is no yesterday or tomorrow – it's all about right now. He is happy to wake from a nap to greet us, dash off to torment the cat when he comes into view and then eagerly buzz out the door for a race around the garden – all in the blink of an eye. But this also demonstrates another of his skills – distractibility.

Watching him bounce from activity to activity in mere seconds made me think of how we often spend our days distractedly multitasking, responding to the ping of incoming email, answering questions from collections who just need a minute, engaging in tangential conversations on the way to the printer (and forgetting to pick up the documents) and reading support materials while enroute to the next meeting. It's no wonder we often find ourselves at the end of the day asking why we have accomplished so little.

In fact, the prevalence of this fractured work style has prompted a new study "interruption science", and several recent books. We now know that the average knowledge worker switches tasks every 3 minutes and, once distracted takes up 22 minutes to resume the original activity. If you can remember what it was you were doing when you were interrupted. These interruptions and their recovery time take up almost one-third of our working day. For most of us that's about 3 hours a day. Do you still wonder why your day looks to vaporize?

So what can we do to help ourselves reclaim a better sense of control over our workday?
Maggie Jackson, the author of "Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age", suggests that we need to cultivate the art of attention comprising 3 skills: focus, awareness and executive attention. Here are some suggestions for putting this into practice on a daily basis.

First, be aware of when you are distracted and be fully conscious of having changed focus. For instance, if you are looking up a reference on the net, notice when you wander off topic or click through an unrelated link but rather tracking down the information you really need. And then just as consciously remind yourself of where your focus and attention needs to be. Follow this by responding to the question "Why is it important for me to focus on this task?" These simple steps build awareness and attention.

Knowing the statistics about interrupts you need to plan for them. The plan can be as simple as making a note of what you are doing when interrupted or the good old tried and true "to-do list". Take the list one step further by answering this question each morning: "What is the strategic priority for today that will generate the most impact and success over the long term?" and structure your time accordingly. This is the executive attention component of the attention skills cited by Jackson.

Three ideas you can use right now:

1. Create a space for uninterrupted work. Schedule a no-interruptions block of time on a regular basis and design it as thinking time. Make this practice as widespread as possible in your organization.

2. Create a focus for each day. During the day be conscious of the things you do that do not contribute to the core focus for the day and gently bring yourself back on track. Ask yourself why the core focus is important and follow with at least 2 more rounds of "Why is that important?" This understanding will help you sustain your attention and focus.

3. Develop the skill of mindful listening. When you are in conversation, focus on the other person giving them your full attention instead of preparing your response. Make it your goal to have the other person feel respected, heard and understood at the end of the conversation.

Are you a contributor to interruptions or do you promote a culture of attention in your organization?