As Cheshire Cat said to Alice, “If you don’t know where you’re going, then any road will take you there.” The road to effective personal and organizational leadership success is largely based on the ability to direct attention—to learn, change, and achieve goals.
Unfortunately, research suggests that the ability to pay attention is on the decline. A study by Microsoft (May 2015) shows that human attention spans are now lower than those of goldfish, falling to 8 seconds from the previous benchmark of 12 seconds in the year 2000. Goldfish can apparently hold their attention for 9 seconds. The ability to pay attention is more important than ever in this age of information, yet it’s becoming increasingly difficult given the overwhelming amount of real-time information we get via our computers, our mobile devices, TV and social media. Managing our focus is important in terms of the ability to get anything done, or to engage in meaningful conversations.
All leaders have a choice about what to focus on. Mindful leaders are self-aware and not easily distracted. As the Nobel Prize winner and economist Herbert Simon once noted, “Information consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” Instead of trying to do many things at once, mindful leaders stay focused on one thing at a time. Rather than skimming emails, reading only headlines and subject lines and skipping through voice mails, mindful leaders direct their attention and place more importance on the task at hand.
Multi-tasking is an illusion or misnomer. We don’t actually pay attention to two things at once—we attention-switch. Switching happens so fast it feels like we are doing two things at once. Albert Einstein said, “Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.” It is possible for our brains to do complex multi-tasking (like driving and talking on the phone), but what we are doing is not as effective as it would be if we were focused on only one thing. When we attention-split, we become less productive, we make more mistakes and therefore need more time to fix mistakes, and it is taxing on the brain.
The inability to focus is not good for our brain health and overall well-being. Research has shown that the distracted state of mind is often more anxious, depressed, or stressed which leads to decreased engagement and performance. The good news is that we can train our brains. The discipline of mindfulness is essentially training the mind to focus. There is much research to show that increasing our capacity to focus builds brain health and productivity. Mindfulness is the training of attention, often referred to as meditation. It helps us direct our attention in a very conscious way to help change our default tendencies. More mindfulness leads to higher emotional intelligence—higher self-awareness, self-regulation, improved empathy and better social skills.
Fortunately, attention is a mental muscle; like any other muscle, it can be strengthened through the right kind of exercise. The fundamental exercise for building deliberate attention is simple. When your mind wanders, notice that it has wandered, bring it back to your desired point of focus, and keep it there as long as you can. With three months of attention-training in the form of mindfulness, it was found that people performed better under stress, were less distracted, and experienced less self-preoccupation, rumination, worry, day-dreaming and catastrophizing.
Paying attention to something is a three-step process. First we must feel intrigued, either because of threat or novelty, then second, we must orientate ourselves to what we want to focus on by either gaining proximity or tuning our senses, and then third, in order to remain focused there must be some type of intrinsic or extrinsic reward.
Our individual and collective ability to direct our attention is necessary in order to achieve goals. Mindful leaders have the ability to be present and focus, and to create conditions for others to focus as well.
How well do you pay attention?
About the Author
Sandra McDowell, MA, PCC, CPHR, SHRM-SCP
As the founder and voice behind eLeadership Academy™, Sandra McDowell helps leaders and organizations increase performance and well-being by leveraging neuroscience insights to harness the untapped power of the brain.