How to Take Back Attention

It can be tough to manage your attention—and your colleagues'. Here are a few concrete examples from executives who have put mindfulness into action.

VectorMine/Adobe Stock

We are living through a quiet crisis of attention and ironically many of us don’t even notice. In previous posts, I’ve written about the essential importance of attention. Quality of attention is the foundation for not only effective action but also experiencing a sense of well-being, purpose, and meaning. More skillfully handling attention is one of the essential management challenges of our day.

Since my article on attention, several readers have told me that they never connected their frenetic days and frazzled feelings to their poor use of attention. But in retrospect, it seems an obvious relationship.

Skillfully handling attention is one of the essential management challenges of our day.

We are largely an attention illiterate society. When I raise this to executive or professional audiences I’m speaking to, usually two distinct reactions emerge.

The first is, “Yeah, this is nuts! What are we doing to ourselves?” The president of a manufacturing company related a story of walking into the weekly leadership meeting of a firm his had recently taken over. They were “a two-hour free for all” where “nothing of much substance happened.” “It wasn’t a big surprise why they were performing so poorly,” he said.

The second and far more common reaction is, “Yeah … manage attention? Good luck! That’s impossible around here!” A group’s habits around attention have so much momentum they seem impossible to change. This is probably where you work.

How to Manage Attention in the Workplace

What follows comes from a client of mine. The firm is a global aerospace company whose day-to-day operations are intense and routinely described in terms of war. “Incoming!” and “Ambushes” are all part of a day’s work.

Eleanor is a well-respected, innovative, and forward-moving director of human resources. She participated in a course on mindful leadership I developed for her firm two years ago.

The course asks participants to experiment with ways to better enhance the quality of attention of the working environment. Along with her team, she took up the exercise with her typical gusto. A phone call to her last week revealed that the methods she and her team developed are still going strong, despite a roller coaster of change within the organization.

Here are three steps she took to manage attention in the workplace:

1. Identify the attention challenges

First, because no person is an island, she approached the attention-enhancing effort as a team-building exercise. She understood that their attention challenges weren’t only technological, but they were also social. The team needed to craft a new shared understanding about how they were going to use their attention with one another. This is the conversation we all need to have.

First, they dialogued about their intentions. What did they want as a team? What were they doing now that wasn’t working? How was mindfulness going to translate into value for themselves and the firm?

2. Recognize what can be changed

They realized that distraction reduced not only their ability to perform, but their sense of satisfaction and connection with one another. They recognized that for them to perform well as a team, the quality of their own connection must be strong.

This insight led them to pay greater attention to how they interacted between themselves. Because the firm is 60,000+ people, they understood they weren’t going to change the firm, but they could change themselves in relationship to one another. Their goal was to create a “culture of calm” in an otherwise chaotic and dynamic environment.

3. Settle on a common goal

Furthermore, they needed to get things done. After a lot of honest, open discussions, they settled on the goal of “At the end of the day, we have accomplished important things.” Framing the goal in this way gave the team something clear and positive to move toward. It set up a benchmark to evaluate actions against. In other words, they could assess “will this help me accomplish important things by the end of the day?”

Try It: “Project Focus Time”

A central pillar of their effort is “Project Focus Time.” They agreed that to accomplish important things, they needed to dedicate time to focus attention. The team agreed that each member would receive at least 90 minutes a day to focus. Unless a customer showed up or the building was on fire, the person was to be left alone.

Project Focus Time dramatically changed how the team worked together for the better. They saw how their ability to focus influenced the quality of their results as well as their ability to feel satisfied with the work they’ve done. “Do your best and go home,” was one motto they stood by.

Their guidelines were simple:

  • During the focus time, focus on one deliverable to be accomplished.  Avoid multi-tasking!
  • Switch cell phone and IM to away or do not disturb mode.
  • Focus time is not to exceed 1.5 hours and is to be utilized only once a day, if needed.