Sep 6, 2021
The art of paying attention

Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

Husain Rokadia
HR Business Partner

Let me set the scene for you. You are a matador and the stadium is jam packed, with over a 1000 people, cheering and shouting, the sun is in your eyes, you are dressed in heavy garments with a sword and a red flag in your hand. A bull is charging towards you. What is the one mistake you cannot afford to make? Losing attention for a fraction of a second.

Attention management is the practice of controlling distractions, being present in the moment, finding flow, and maximising focus, so that you can unleash your genius. It’s about being intentional instead of reactive.

One of the best insights on what true productivity means in the 21st century dates back to 1890. In his book The Principles of Psychology, Vol.1, William James wrote a simple statement that’s packed with meaning: “My experience is what I agree to attend to.”

Your attention determines the experiences you have, and the experiences you have determine the life you live. Or said another way: you must control your attention to control your life. Today, in a world where so many experiences are blended together — where we can work from home (or a train or a plane or a beach), watch our kids on a nanny-cam from work, and distraction is always just a thumb-swipe away — has that ever been more true?

Better attention management leads to improved productivity, but it’s about much more than checking things off a to-do list. The ultimate result is the ability to create a life of choice, around things that are important to you. It’s more than just exercising focus. It’s about taking back control over your time and your priorities.

Practicing attention management means fighting back against the distractions and creating opportunities throughout your day to support your priorities. First, control external factors:

Control your technology

Remember, it’s there to serve you, not the other way around! Decide to take control by turning off email and “push” notifications which are specifically designed to steal your attention. This will allow you to engage in more stretches of focused work on tasks and activities that you choose.

Control your environment

Set boundaries with others, especially in an open-office setting. For example, use headphones or put up a “do not disturb” sign when you need to focus. You can try teaming up with colleagues to designate a certain time of day, or day of the week, a “no distractions” day for everyone to do heads-down work.

But here’s an overlooked truth: Our productivity suffers not just because we are distracted by outside interruptions, but also because our own brains, frazzled by today’s frantic workplaces (which now are our homes), become a source of distraction in and of themselves.

So you must also learn to control internal factors.

Control your behaviour

Use those times when your technology is tamed and your do-not-disturb sign is up to get used to single-tasking: open only one window on your computer screen, and give your full attention to one task until it’s complete, or until a designated stopping point. Take breaks throughout the day where you step away from your computer. Try to “unplug” completely (no technology) for at least an hour or more, as often as you can. Try it for 15-20 minutes at first; then build up to an hour, or even 90 minutes.

Control your thoughts

For many of us, this is the hardest nut to crack. Minds are made to wander. Practice noticing when your mind is veering off in its own direction, and gently guide your focus back to where you want it.

Is it worth is if we develop professionally but not as a person? As a friend, life partner, father/mother, son/daughter, and overall as a better human being.

Attention Management is the currency of everything, is spent wisely it is sure to reap us the best of returns on a personal front too.

The Currency of Love

When you’re a professional speaker, your family members expect you to write their speeches. When you’re a designer, your friends expect you to make their wedding cards. The list goes on as per the dependencies we create.

When we pay attention to another person in this way, it’s the clearest indication of how much we value and care about them. This isn’t just relevant to romantic love.

Kids want their parents to pay attention to the goofy things that they do and the ridiculous pictures that they draw. Given their level of emotional maturity, paying attention to them is the clearest indicator that they matter. Whether it’s with your kids, parents, siblings or significant others, attention is the currency of love. Attention management could be the most important aspect of your relationship with people who matter most.

The Currency of Connection

My work style from more than 200 interviews is to never have a list of questions. All I know about every interview is how I’m going to start and end. This forces me to pay attention to every word someone says. I base every single question I ask on the answer they’ve given me to their previous question. The result is a more meaningful conversation and a deeper connection.

The Currency of Achievement

Whether you want to write a book, build a company or progress in your career, you have to be able to manage your attention. It’s the essential skill and currency of achievement that will determine your ability to succeed professionally in the next decade.

Personally speaking, in retrospect every good thing in the past decade that has happened to me has happened because I gave my attention to it, I said ‘YES’ when a question or an opportunity was presented to me. Without definitive attention, I probably would not have experienced all of the fabulous things and developed as a person.