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Time to pay attention

Posted by Aubrey Warren on 18 November 2020
We live in an "attention economy"; our precious and limited cognitive resources are constantly being enticed, attracted, lured, tempted, assaulted, and distracted. Not only by global online businesses, but also the constant aural and visual messages that bombard us in our physical environments, as well the people around us. And that's before we distract ourselves!

A positive from all of this attention-seeking and distracting behaviour from others is that it reminds us that our attention has value. And therefore, we give value to what we give our attention to.

Online, the value of our attention is established by the fact that you can either access things for free if you'll put up with distracting advertising and/or surrendering your data, or pay a fee to be free of (most of) those distractions (and still surrender your data). In our built environment just about every billboard, banner, sign, poster, screen, or announcement is costing someone money in the hope that it will arrest our attention and prompt action.

And the people around us will sometimes engage in extraordinary behaviours to get our attention. Things like interrupting, pleading, promising, threatening, guilting, lying, sulking, bragging, throwing tantrums (no, not just infants you know who I'm talking about) If you didn't think your attention was important, pay attention to the things people do to get a piece of it.

Whether we're responsible for managing a project, a task, a team, a business, a relationship, or "just" our self, if we can't manage our attention then our attention will quickly de-value.

"Attention management is far more important today than time management," notes author and productivity expert Maura Thomas, because no amount of time management will ever change the demands on your attention. And there's the point: just as we know we need to pay attention to how we spend our time, so we have to pay attention to what gets our attention. Because we value our attention by the value of what we give our attention to.

The American Psychological Association defines attention as "a state in which cognitive resources are focused on certain aspects of the environment rather than on others". So, it's a choice. Not an easy one, but an important one. A choice that has to be consciously managed. So, here are three thoughts on managing your valuable attention.

One, pay attention to what you're paying attention to. "Researchers tell us attention and focus are the raw materials of human creativity and flourishing" notes Nir Eyal, author of Indistractable. And we should pay attention to him because he literally wrote the book (Hooked: How to build habit-forming products) on how to understand human behaviour and attention the book that all those online businesses use to "hook" us.

So, if we're going to be creative, productive and flourishing then we can't leave our attention and focus to chance or someone else's agenda. You can do an informal audit of where your attention has been in the past hour or day (say, compared to the agenda you set yourself). You can note what you have been distracted from. You can assess what distractions typically steal your attention even momentarily while you need to be in a high-value focus state (screens, alerts, visual distractions, sounds, environment).

And don't ignore the internal distractors. Remember that distraction is the opposite of what we need to be productive: traction. As Nir Eyal reminds us: traction moves us towards what we want; distractions move us away from what we want.

Two, pay attention to what you actually value. The algorithm that has worked out what might distract our attention is clever, but what that algorithm's owners value isn't likely to be what you value. The algorithm doesn't get to choose what we value even if it is good at tempting us with other things to focus on.

Our attention is our choice. We get to choose our values and what we value. And, like other choices and decisions, the clearer those things are before we're faced with the distraction, the easier it will be for us to make the high-value decision on what to give our attention to.

What do you value? What has value for you? What delivers the greatest value for you? What is your highest-value point of focus for this day, this hour, the next ten minutes? Invest your attention there.

Three, consciously align what you're attending to with what you value. Ask yourself how what you're focusing on reflects what you value. What we do and how we spend our time and direct our attention becomes our experience. And our experiences become our life.

Consciously managing our attention will probably require a deliberate pause. In 18 Minutes: Find your focus, master distraction, and get the right things done, Peter Bregman encourages conscious and regular pauses to ask what this year is about what this month is about what this week is about what this day is about as a means of staying conscious of what this moment should be about. It's a strategy for becoming more consciously attentive to what really matters rather than being unconsciously distracted by things that don't matter (except for someone else's agenda).

At the functional level you can timeblock (one of Eyal's techniques) specific high-value activities by scheduling specific time (not just adding them to the to-do list). This is a great way of breaking the distraction habit. At the mechanical level you can turn off distracting and unnecessary alerts (email, social media updates, etc.). And at the behavioural level you can make the high-value things easier to engage with and the low-value distractions harder to do (e.g., removing distracting apps from the home page of your phone one more swipe or click makes a difference!).

2020 has made us pay attention, that's for sure. The challenge is to invest our attention in what has real value. Because our attention has value and we value our attention by what we give our attention to. That's why managing our attention is such a high value behaviour every day.

Aubrey Warren
Situational Leadership® Master Trainer and Global Affiliate for Australia & New Zealand
(Originally published in The Situational Leader newsletter November 2020)

APA Dictionary of Psychology. (n.d.). https://dictionary.apa.org/attention
Berkeley Economic Review (2020). Paying Attention: The Attention Economy (31 March), De Marcos, P. (ed.) https://econreview.berkeley.edu/paying-attention-the-attention-economy/
Bregman, P. (2011). 18 Minutes: Find your focus, master distraction, and get the right things done.
Eyal, N. (2019). Indistractable: How to control your attention and choose your life.
Eyal, N. (2104). Hooked! How to Build Habit-Forming Products
Thomas, M. (2013). TEDx (September). Online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yzp5ZJJOXNc

You are welcome to reprint these articles as long as the following statement is printed at the conclusion of each reprinted article. (Hyperlinks and telephone number below must be included in the statement.)
© Aubrey Warren, Influence 3, 2019. Used with permission. For more information about leadership and team development, communication training or coaching visit www.influence3.com.au or call +61 0412 756 435. Situational Leadership® and Performance Readiness are registered trademarks of Leadership Studies Inc. www.situational.com  All rights reserved.

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