Attention

Five strategies to improve your most important resource – Attention

David McCrae Best Practice

What is your most important resource? If you had a choice, what would you want more of?

Some people might say money. Money does facilitate business and enterprise, it can create a better quality of life, but only if it is well allocated. We can see examples of people who have all the money in the world and are still unhappy. There are people who have had it and lost it. The rap artist and entrepreneur Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson has sold 30 million albums worldwide, has a business portfolio in numerous domains including fashion, entertainment and supplements and is an actor and filmmaker. His net worth peaked at $155M. In 2015, 50 Cent filed for bankruptcy. Money clearly is not everything.

Other people might say time. Time is one resource that we can never buy, borrow or steal. Time is ticking for all of us. However, if time is our most important resource, then surely those with an abundance of time will be happier and more successful? The unemployed have an abundance of time, yet they do not translate this into success. Younger people have more time than older people, but they generally rank lower on happiness indices than older people. In the corporate world, working hours are stretched longer and longer, but there are still only 24 hours in the day. Joe Bloggs and Warren Buffet both have those same hours, yet Warren utilises his time far more effectively.

So what is our most important resource?
It is our attention. How and what we focus on dictates how valuable money is and how effective our time can be. There is a popular mantra “Where attention goes, energy flows.” Like most cognitive resources such as willpower, decision making and memory, attention is a finite resource, so we need to be careful how we allocate it. So how can we manage our attention more effectively to improve business?

Here are five strategies that will help you and your workforce improve attention levels and maximise time:

1. Morning Strategies to boost attention

How many of you dive straight into the black hole of the inbox first thing in the day? For so many people their phone is shoved in their face from the moment they wake up, their browser homepage set to email or social media. This makes us reactive, not proactive. You become more concerned about other people’s agenda, rather than your own.

The morning can sometimes be the only part of the day where you can separate yourself from the agendas of others, and have some time to yourself. There are a couple of practices that I recommend doing in the morning.

Meditation:

I take 20 minutes every morning to find some stillness and calm before the day starts. Regular meditation grows the pre-frontal cortex, which is our area of the brain responsible for decision-making, planning and organisation. This will allow you to create and produce more effectively. It is during this moment of stillness, when you are clearing the brain of waste and toxicity, when inspired ideas can come to you.

Journaling:

Have a book or pad that you can use every morning to organise your thoughts. If an inspired idea came to you during your meditation, write it down. Also record what you want from the day. What outcome would you like to arrive at by the end of the day? How would you like to feel? Record three projects you would like to work on or complete that day. These do not have to be work-related. What is important today? What is going to advance your quality of life? Taking time to set these priorities helps you avoid procrastination, distraction and indecision later in the day.

Fulfil Physical Needs:

The first thing I do when I wake up is hydrate. I have a green smoothie made with 0.5L of water, and I fill up a 2L bottle of water that I aim to finish before midday. This also serves my nutritional needs. Exercise and wake your body up, whether that is an early gym session, stretching and yoga, or walking or cycling to work. Exercise activates a number of neurochemicals that are conducive to sharper thinking and improved energy.

2. Recognise the difference between “Urgent” and “Important”

During the day, you are going to have numerous things vying for your attention. That is the nature of our uber-connected society. You can take steps to cut out some of the noise, but inevitably you must prioritise and decide what you will focus on.

Stephen Covey highlights the distinction between “urgent” and “important” in his wonderful book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. A ringing phone is urgent, an unread email is urgent, a to-do list is urgent. They beg for your attention. But are they really important? If the phone call is important, they will leave a message. An email will wait patiently until it’s answered. Most of the things we put on a to-do list are easy procrastination tasks to make us feel good for crossing them off.

We spend much and many of our days running after work and people, with this urgent need to serve them. People like to involve us in their false emergencies, and it’s important not to give into the urgent feeling to give your time away to such demands. This sense of urgency is what raises our stress and anxiety. By removing ourselves from this urgent need to respond to stimuli as soon as possible, we start to play smart and raise our satisfaction and fulfilment by working on what’s important. Your morning strategising will provide a roadmap highlighting what’s important today.

3. The Pomodoro Method

The Pomodoro Method is one of my all-time favourite strategies, not just for creativity, but for life. This method involves taking an hour, and splitting it into a set work time, and set break time. Some people do 20/10/20/10, others do 45/15, I personally prefer 50/10. Each work block is called a Pomodoro block, and in that block you focus on ONE task. With these distractions neutralised as much as is realistic and viable, you then focus on that one task until the work block/task is complete.

This technique is effective not just for the work you do in your job or business, but what you do outside of it too. Have Pomodoro blocks for exercise, reading, speaking with a friend or family member. This might feel a bit artificial and forced, especially in interpersonal scenarios, but consider this. When was the last time someone gave you 50 minutes of undivided attention? When was the last time you gave someone those 50 minutes? When was the last time you gave yourself 50 minutes of undivided attention? There is power in removing distractions.

A special mention for emails (and electronic communication in general), as they can sap so much of our attention and cognitive resources. Don’t check your emails intermittently throughout the day, set aside a Pomodoro block in which to work through your emails. I want you to think of your email inbox like a military operation, you go in and avoid all the shrapnel and flak of spammy emails, memes and never-ending threads. You have a set of objectives to complete. You go in, complete them, then take a tactical retreat out of there and close the inbox. Then you can focus on some meaningful, creative work.

4. Flow States

The Pomodoro block allows us to focus our key resource: attention. When we can focus our attention on a task, we enter a special psychological state called “flow”. If you play sport, or a music instrument you may be familiar with it. In sports, it’s called “being in the zone”, where you are so engrossed in that one activity that you lose all perception of time, fatigue, hunger, thirst. Many people experience it when they have an interesting and engaging conversation, where “time flies by.” Being engaged in something we find meaningful is one of the best stimuli for flow states. You may recognise this utter engrossment on a recent project? This is the flow state, a state of optimal creative expression.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I had to double-check the spelling) is the pioneering researcher into flow states. His research has found that the frequency and intensity of flow states are a vital predictor of happiness, as they increase our sense of engagement and meaning with what we are doing in our lives. He discovered that we enter flow right on the threshold of our skill level. If the activity is too easy for us, we aren’t fully taxed or stimulated, so don’t enter flow. If it’s too hard we get anxious and stressed, so don’t enter flow.

Below is a graph, highlighting the optimal conditions for flow:

Flow theory states for attention

Source: http://www.lingholic.com/language-learning-scaffolding-and-the-zone-of-proximal-development/

There are three criteria that we can use to help direct us into a state of flow:

  1. Having clear goals throughout the process
  2. Clear and immediate feedback
  3. Belief in one’s ability to complete the task (skill/challenge balance)

This explains why musicians get into flow so frequently. They have clear goals throughout the process, for example finishing each verse of the piece. They get immediate and clear feedback, they either play the note right, or wrong. Musicians can also match that skill and challenge, choosing pieces that match their level of playing ability.

Put simply, you must find a process that is challenging, but has clear goals and feedback that allow you to constantly monitor the challenge. If you achieve the goals too quickly or easily, you aren’t in flow. If you aren’t getting consistent feedback, it will be hard to enter and maintain flow.

When you take the time to remove distraction and focus attention, you can immerse yourself in the state of flow. In this state your neurochemicals are on fire, pumping your body full of goodness. This allows you to unlock more abilities and expression.

5. Practice mindfulness throughout the day.

Earlier I recommended having a meditation practice. Many people see meditation and mindfulness as synonymous, but I see them as slightly different. Meditation is a practice, mindfulness is a state of consciousness. Meditation focuses on calming the mind and focusing attention on the breath and self. Mindfulness focuses on awareness of the present moment and environment.

Mindfulness is something you can do throughout the day and involves simply focusing completely on what you’re doing, slowing down, and observing all the physical and emotional sensations you are experiencing in that moment.

For example, when you’re on your lunchbreak, don’t sit on your phone or chat to others. Instead take time to really chew your food and concentrate on the flavours and texture. When you type, or write, observe the kinesthetic movements of your hands and fingers. These are all little micro exercises in attention, that will eventually train you to be more focused.

In our current work environments, there is a large waste of attention: unnecessary meetings, instant messaging pings, multitasking demands. In this environment, you must take steps to safeguard your attention and encourage your workforce to do the same. If you don’t, then engagement, performance and profit will suffer.

David McCrae
David is a Personal Development Trainer. He decided to transform his life after suffering from an eating disorder, depression and losing his father to cancer. Working to help people and businesses master their psychology, success and decisions – he is dedicated to creating positive and lasting change through his devotion to personal development.

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