Investing Attention

Not the best way to succeed

Any commodity that is rare and useful it is bound to be very valuable. That is why in today’s frenetic world, attention is the new literacy.[1] It’s good to pay attention, but those who have the capacity and skill to invest their attention most productively will have a huge advantage in business, relationships, and life in general.

We all know how difficult it is to maintain focus for very long on one particular topic. In this age of continuous and ubiquitous connection, there are so many stimuli competing for our limited attention that very few of us feel like our attention fully belongs to us anymore.

Linda Stone coined the term, continuous partial attention, to describe our tendency to constantly be on alert for anything that might be more pressing than what we are doing right now. You experience it when you talk to someone. Although you know you should focus entirely on the person across from you, you are classically conditioned to respond to the chirp of your phone which announces an incoming message. At least the pigeons in Skinner’s boxes got a worthwhile reward for their mindless actions—yours is probably spam, but you’re powerless to resist anyway.

You see it when you try to sit down at your desk and focus on that project you’ve been putting off (such as this article). You know that you don’t hit your creative zone until about thirty minutes into it, but you just can’t resist stealing a glance at the screen, or getting up to walk around the house for a few minutes. When you give in to the interruption, it takes several minutes to get back up to cruising speed.

How much does it matter? I believe it matters a lot. Control of your attention is a hugely critical factor in the quality of your life and the arc of your success for the simple reason that your attention is the gateway through which all inputs that affect you enter your mind. Even when the inputs have entered within your mind, attention dictates how your mind uses them.

Where and how you invest your attention make you who you are. In short, you are the sum of what you invest your attention in. By improving your skill at investing attention, you will learn more, get more done, and improve your relationships.

There is no scientific proof of the old myth that we use less than 10% of our brains, but I believe that myth is still useful as a metaphor. I’d like to rephrase it by saying that we use less than 10% of our attention productively.[2] Most of the time our minds run on autopilot, passively taking in what’s around us and having a lot of cycle time available for unstructured musing and ruminating. It may be a song lyric playing over and over, or daydreaming, or worrying about whether you’re going to get that next deal. Very rarely are we thinking actively, deeply and constructively about an issue, so how can we even remotely approach our best work?

Attention is the foundation of all our other mental skills. For example, a lot of people complain that their memory is not that good, but I suspect that it’s more due to inattention than to memory. For example, I decided several years ago that I would master the art of quickly memorizing people’s names when they come into my classes. I pride myself on being able to take in and retain (for the duration of the class only, I admit) up to about 30 names. When people ask me how I do it, I tell them that it is almost entirely about listening to them when they tell me their name. At that moment, their name is the most important thing to me—not how I come across to them or what I want to say next—just their name.

Sustained attention is also critical to reflection and creativity. You have to spend quality time with a problem or a topic if you want to get that flash of insight that enables you to see the answer. You don’t have to be thinking about it all the time; in fact, those flashes usually come when you’re not thinking consciously about it. But you do have to spend time thinking about it to plant the seeds that will bear the fruit of insight.

Being in the moment is the only way to squeeze every ounce of juice out of life. If you’re here but not here, you’re not getting the full benefit of either where you are physically or where you are in your thoughts.

Your attention also determines the quality of your personal relationships. It is a cheap yet priceless gift that you can give to others. I know I need to be reminded of that on occasion. My wife once said to me: “I can’t believe you actually teach a module on listening,” to which I replied, “I try not to bring my work home with me.”

Think back to the last time someone gave you their deep and undivided attention for more than a few minutes. It felt pretty good, didn’t it? How often have you given the same to someone else? Or reflect on the opposite situation: you meet someone at a function and they don’t even look you in the eye when they shake your hand because they’re too busy scanning the room to see if there is anyone more important they should be talking to. How does that feel?

The good news to all this is that attention is a skill that can be improved with technique and practice, and that will be the subject of the next article.

[1] I love this phrase, and as near as I can tell, it was coined by Howard Rheingold.

[2] This figure of 10% is only a personal estimate; I don’t know of any research that has calculated the true percentage.

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