The Essential Resource We’re All Wasting

What we attend to creates our lives—attention is the most essential human resource, fundamental to our lives, to our relationships, and our quality of work.

Sergey Nivens/Adobe Stock

We need to talk. Not just you and me, but all of us. None of us are connecting like we once did. We’re more distracted and the conversations aren’t as rich. It’s zoom meetings. It’s distance. It’s many things. But it all amounts to us not working through the tough stuff like we did before. The intense focus that was once there seems to have gone. 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 Challenge

We’ve been neglecting attention and now it’s become one of our 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 implication for anyone who manages people is clear. As work orients towards 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 our ability to perform, connect, create, and innovate, let alone enjoy life.

First, let’s explore the heart of the matter: What we pay attention to.

Attention is the Most Essential Human Resource

Why care about attention? Attention is the most essential human resource. Attention is the energy we use to engage with the world. How we use our 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.

“What we attend to creates our lives. Whether it’s spreadsheets or Shakespeare, we are what we give our attention to.”

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.

Attention Drives Meaningful Connections Essential for Management

Relationships are forged by the exchange of attention. Have you ever been on a video call with someone, and the timbre of their robotic voice makes it clear they’re distracted? How does that make you feel? Yeah, not good. How connected does the family staring at their individual phones while eating dinner seem to you?

The quality of attention is the foundation for sustained success—in every part of your life. 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.

The High Cost of 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. Where are these intrusions coming from? The number one source of interruptions is other workers.

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.

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.

Why Multitasking Makes us Stupid (And You’re Not as Good at it as You Think)

Over 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 people 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 post, I’ll share with you some of their solutions.