Your attention is a commodity that is up for bids all day long. Every marketer in the world wants it, and so do all the people around you. But quality work and quality relationships only happen when you give them your full attention. So today I’m talking about how to manage your attention so you can improve your life.
Have you ever spent time with someone who was constantly distracted by their phone? How was the conversation? Probably not too great.
Have you ever sat down and eaten dinner in front of the tv? How did the food taste? Do you even remember?
What we give our attention to changes the entire experience we are having. We can watch and enjoy an event – really immerse ourselves in it and what’s happening -or we can be busy taking pictures and live streaming it. The second way probably won’t give us the same rich experience that the first will.
Controlling your attention is more than just being able to focus on a single task, it’s about choosing to have the experience you want to have. And while focus is part of controlling your attention, it’s also about controlling your distractions. And it’s about being present so that you can get into that prized, but elusive, state of flow.
Attention management isn’t just another way to say time management. You could manage your time and energy all day long, but if you’re not managing your attention, it’s likely that your productivity is going to suffer. Even if you schedule your work on a calendar or time box your whole day, if you’re not actually paying attention to what you need to get done, the results are going to be lackluster at best.
Attention is essentially like a muscle – the more you work it, the stronger it gets. But in today’s society we are constantly bombarded by distractions. Calls, texts, emails, social media, coworkers, are all vying for your attention. Not only do you need to learn to train your attention, you also need to notice when you’re getting distracted, and then be able to find your way back to your plan.
Today I’m giving you exercises and tips that you can use to build up the staying power of your attention, so that you can have the experience that you intend to have — instead of the one someone else wants for you.
YOUR BRAIN ON DATA
Your body is constantly bombarding your brain with information. In fact it sends roughly 11 million bits of data PER SECOND. Unfortunately, our brains can’t consciously process all of this, so it filters out nearly all of it. At any given second you are only paying attention to about 40 of those bits of data.
That’s only 0.00000364%
That’s a lot of zeros.
To make matters even more complicated how you decide to focus on goes through filters like your mood, expectations, concerns, and belief system.
For example, ever just woke up on the wrong side of the bed.? You’re just grumpy. How does your day go? Are you able to find the bright side of things or does everything seem to have a dark storm cloud over it? There were probably a lot of good things that happened to you, but you weren’t giving them your attention because that was not where your mood was leading you.
This is why two people can go through the same experience and come back with very different accounts of it. The unique way each person was filtering their attention determined the experience that they had.
PRIORITIZE YOUR ATTENTION
One of the things that is critical about your attention is that you get to prioritize what to focus on. If I sent you on an hour long car trip and told you to come back and tell me how many red cars you saw, that would be an easy task.
BUT if after the trip was over I asked you to tell me also how many black ones you saw, you probably couldn’t give me an accurate number – because that’s not what you prioritized.
Before you sit down to a task it’s important to narrow your attention so that you’re able to focus on what matters — instead of letting your mood and potential expectations of the outcome hijack the experience.
For example, they did a study where they had wine connoisseurs taste a white wine that had been dyed red. They ended up using terms that are reserved for red wines rather than white, despite the fact that the flavor and odor had not been altered.
They expected a red wine, so their brains gave them a red wine experience.
This effect is called confirmation bias. We essentially look for information to confirm our belief systems and disregard information that goes against what we believe.
But filtering your attention through a potentially incorrect set of beliefs is not a good way to hire a new employee, nor make a sound business decision, nor live life in general.
The problem is that it’s impossible to know what we didn’t notice. Just like you couldn’t possibly know how many black cars you saw, you can’t know what details you’re filtering out.
In order to manage your attention so that you can have a good experience Caroline Webb has the following exercise to get your brain on track.
- Self Check
I already recommend checking in with yourself regularly throughout the day, but before an important task is a good time to plan one. Essentially take a mindfulness moment and see how you’re feeling physically, mentally, and emotionally. Webb recommends you consider what you want, what’s your mood, what’s the situation, and who are you having it with.
- Notice your filters
Consider what you are looking for from the situation, and since you’ll be looking for something, what’s something you might miss.
- Be positive
Figure out what matters most to you about the experience and make sure that it’s something positive. If you’re going into a meeting just to prove someone wrong, take a moment to find a more positive and generous action to take.
Given all the you have thought about above, what now will you choose to give your attention to?
FLEX YOUR ATTENTION MUSCLE
Attention thieves are everywhere – in your pocket, in your office, in your home, and in your head. Not only do we have to manage what other people (or electronics) want from us, we have to manage our own behaviors to help us keep our attention headed where we want it to go.
External Attention Thieves
External distractions are e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e. Many of them originate from that little device that you carry around in your pocket all day.
In fact, if your phone is nearby – even if it’s off – it’s detrimental to your performance. It’s that distracting.
Couple that with whatever is going on on your computer, an open work environment or coworkers who like to just pop in, or children asking for you every few minutes, and it’s a wonder any of us ever get anything accomplished (I speak from experience here).
In fact you might think that a distraction only causes you to lose as much time as the distraction itself takes. A coworker drops in and talks for 5 minutes, then you lost 5 minutes – maybe a couple more to get your train of thought back. That was my guess anyway.
It turns out that a distraction costs you that 5 minutes and another whopping 23 minutes and 15 seconds on average to your focus back to the level that it was before you were interrupted.
If you’re distracted more often than every 20 minutes (and if you have any of your notifications turned on on your phone, it’s more like every 20 seconds) you’re not really attaining the level of attention that is true to your potential.
What can you do about this?
First, it’s time to find another place for your phone to be when you need to focus – outside of your line of sight and all notifications off. If you normally like to keep them on, then put the phone in airplane mode and stow it behind you so that it’s out of sight.
Second, only do one thing at a time. I’m the poster child for 12 windows and 200 internet tabs open at a time – so this is a struggle for me too. Try opening only the software that you must use on your computer and close everything else. Turn off the computer notifications too.
Third, control your environment. This one can be more difficult if you have small children or work in an open office space. Do what you can to make it clear that you need this next 30-60 minutes to focus. Put up a sign, get noise cancelling headphones, put on a movie for the kids and hide in your room. Do what you need to isolate yourself so that you can hear yourself think and give this project your full attention.
Internal Attention Thieves
Have you ever wondered about something and felt the need to google it immediately? Or thought of something you needed to do and stopped what you were working on to do it?
The outside distractions aren’t the only diversions that we need to manage – we have to manage what’s going on internally too.
According to Maura Thomas the 2 main internal distractions to control are your thoughts and your behaviors.
Controlling your thoughts is nearly impossible. Anyone who’s ever had a failed go at meditation can attest to this.
If you try to not think about something, that’s all you’ll think about. If you feel the urge to look something up, it’s so hard to resist.
The point here, though, is not to attempt to control the thoughts, but to manage them. Just as in meditation you acknowledge the thought and release it, you can do something similar while you’re working.
The biggest thing is to keep a notebook and pen with you at all times. Whenever you think of something that you want to know about (that’s not critical to your current task) or another to do, just write it down.
I highly recommend pen and paper so that you’re not having to open your phone or switch to a different software on your computer.
The act of writing it down will allow your brain to let it go so it’s not circling around your head anymore, trying to distract you.
Your behavior is much more in your control than what other people do. Part of your behavior is to try the above actions under external attention to let others know what you’re trying to do to attempt to prevent their behavior from stealing your attention.
Other internally focused attention boosting efforts are to meditate and to take technology breaks.
Meditation does not need to be this hour long deal on a pillow, with incense, chanting Ommmmm – unless that’s what you want it to be. There are tons of apps and books to make meditation more accessible and realistic. Meditation places are also popping up around the country so you can meditate with guidance.
Technology breaks can seem just as hard as meditation to the truly addicted. Thomas recommends starting small and building up. Just turn everything off and get away from technology for 15-20 minutes and then build up to 60-90 minutes or more A DAY.
This time away will give you an unbelievable feeling of freedom and allow your brain to relax. This calms the nervous system which opens up your creativity. You’ll come back to your devices renewed and be able to use them instead of them using you.
If you are truly struggling with being addicted to your devices, please check out my post here.
Your attention is up for sale every day. If you allow it to be guided by the outside world you’re sacrificing an unbelievable amount of your potential genius and productivity. Take back control of your attention, and all the potential that it holds, by trying some of these exercises.
If you’re struggling to manage your attention, get into your genius zone, and be your most productive self, contact me here. Coaching with me can help you regain the control of your life that you need to be your best self.