The greatest superpower you can develop to improve your leadership and your life.
If you’d rather listen than learn, you can find the audio version on my podcast, Sound Insight Season 2, Episode 2.
“Cathy needs to learn to pay attention.”
These words, or words to this affect, appeared in almost every one of my elementary school report cards. In fact, my grade 2 teacher became so distraught at my seeming willful refusal to pay attention, that she once stood over my desk with a yard stick and threatened to bring it crashing down on my head if I looked anywhere but at the blackboard or my notebook.
Whatever you may think of my grade 2 teacher’s tactics, the assertion, ‘Cathy needs to learn to pay attention’, remains as true today as it was in those elementary school classrooms of my childhood.
If you were to ask me, what is the one skill that has had the greatest positive impact on my life, I would not hesitate. It is the skill of paying attention.
I use the expression “paying attention” deliberately.
I sometimes think of attention and time as two basic currencies of life. Even our language reflects that framing. We talk about paying attention and saving or wasting time.
How building the wrong skill is making us miserable.
Managing time has played a central role in strategies to improve work-life balance. Productivity experts have long focused on the skill of harnessing time as a means to improve performance. And there are good reasons for that. Time is easy to measure against output. It is a reasonable stand-in measure for effort. And as every consultant, lawyer or accountant who has ever filled out a time sheet knows – time is money.
These time management systems have taught us how to time box, time stamp, time crunch. How to plan and measure the day in 15-minute increments. How to cram and wedge as much as possible into every day.
Unfortunately, these efforts have done little to improve either the quality of our lives or our performance. With every time saving strategy and device, we have felt increasingly time starved. Despite the promise that modern technology would create more free time, we seem to have less.
In his insightful book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, Oliver Burkeman says, “The trouble with attempting to master your time, it turns out, is that time ends up mastering you.”
The truth is our lives are not usually improved by the amount of time we have; but by what we attend to in the time we are given.
The problem with trying to harness time is that time is finite. We do not get more of it, nor do any of us know precisely how much of it we have left. The more we try to squeeze into the time we have, the more we fray and degrade the most precious resource we can harness, our attention.
The currency of greater value is not time, but attention.
Technology companies have figured this out. Organizations have built an entire economy around capturing and measuring our attention. Companies have devised algorithms to feed us a continuous diet of irresistible content. They’ve created alarms and notifications that interrupt and divert our attention continuously throughout the day. These technologies are not tuned to what we want or need to pay attention to but to our default settings – the things the most primitive parts of our brain cannot resist. These companies have built the means to make their platforms irresistible and addictive.
We should care about this.
This should concern us as much, if not more, than technologies that infringe on our privacy. We should care about the infringement on our attention, because it is this aspect of these technologies that most significantly degrades the quality of our lives, our relationships, and our experience.
I’m not anti-tech. Like most people, I rely on technology in my daily life and to earn an income. And I use it a lot. But it has serious downsides if used unconsciously. It is a double-edged sword.
The good news is, that the ability to manage our attention is a skill that we can develop and strengthen. The bad news is that this capability can also be eroded. In the same way that muscles will weaken if we don’t exercise, our ability to focus can erode if we continually allow it to be fragmented. Attention training and practice is the most effective shield against the known and unknown risks of the attention fragmentation created by how we use our devices and how we operate in an always on / always available culture.
Your attention is your superpower.
The most powerful thing that attention training develops is meta-cognition.
Metacognition is thinking about your thinking – the ability to observe, monitor, understand, and regulate your own thought processes. And this is as close to a super-power as anything I know.
You can either be a slave to your mind – its defaults, its endless internal chatter and wandering – or you can learn to work with it. When you can work with your own mind, you can create a more meaningful, purposeful, and joyful life. As Winnifred Gallagher wrote in her book, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, “…your life—who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.”
Attention is a process of selection and filtering. Your mind not only selects what comes into your awareness, but what does not. It both lights up and suppresses aspects of your experience. As a result, if you can exercise a measure of influence over your attention, you hold the master key to improving your experience and reducing your suffering.
One of the problems with an untrained mind is that we are wired to scan for threat and danger and to focus on strong emotions and impulses, particularly negative ones. As a result, an untrained mind is more vulnerable to suffering. It’s kind of like a toddler in that respect, it has the capacity to wander off but not enough sense to stay out of trouble.
Three critical skills you improve when you train your attention.
Training attention is like training a muscle. It grows in strength and endurance the more we train it. Training enables us to direct, focus and sustain attention over longer and longer periods of time. It also contributes to the development of other critical skills.
- It enhances self-awareness. Attention training reveals the workings of your mind. It enables you to work with your thoughts and emotions in a way that builds clarity and greater equilibrium. It gives you space between stimulus and response and therefore, a greater measure of choice over your actions.
- It improves present moment focus. Attention training enables you to sustain attention on present moment experience, where your life actually unfolds. This can help reduce worry, anxiety, and stress, which often arise when we are focused on the past or the future. It also supports productivity and performance by enabling you to strengthen your ability to sustain focus over time.
- It improves interpersonal relationships and impact. As you strengthen your ability to direct and sustain attention, it changes the way you interact with others. You develop the ability to listen and connect with others more deeply. It helps build understanding, empathy, and compassion.
Like exercise, training attention is a life-long pursuit.
There are many ways to train attention but perhaps the most ancient, widely practiced, and researched method is meditation. Even a few minutes of meditation a day have been shown to produce benefits such as better focus and concentration, improved sleep, and reduced stress. You don’t need to become a monk and sit for hours on end to reap the benefits of meditation. On the other hand, this is not a one and done training exercise. Like physical exercise, you use it or lose it. Keeping your focus sharp, listening deeply, staying in the present moment, staying clear and calm – these are muscles that require a regular workout.
Meditation training programs and support for your practice are widely and easily available in most communities and there are some truly excellent meditation apps available. My favorite and the one I use every day is Waking Up by Sam Harris. It brings together some of the world’s most renown meditation teachers and methods and supports both the beginner and seasoned meditator.
Training your attention is an essential foundational skill of leadership and one that with deliberate practice can transform your leadership effectiveness. My colleagues and I at Fire Inside Leadership feel so strongly about this, we put attention training at the foundation of our flagship leadership development offering, The Peer Leadership Program.
More about Fire Inside’s Peer Leadership Program
The Peer Leadership Program is a transformative, 16-month development experience designed by Fire Inside Leadership to grow your leadership capacity, resilience and impact.
To get a taste of the experience and the difference it can make for you, register for our free, live 2.5-hour online Peer Leadership Program Test Drive. Don’t delay – space is limited.
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Great topic choice Cathy!
Many people struggle with a regular meditation practice, and in my experience with my coaching clients, it is because the benefits are not fast nor obvious.
The NS Health Authority promotes a program offered by MindWellU called Mindfulness-in-Action which many of my clients find valuable to help make paying attention a more normal and regular act in their daily life. It has been free but perhaps that has changed?
Here’s the link: https://app.mindwellu.com/novascotia/landing
Thanks for your work!
Thanks so much Sean, for the link and your comments! I will definitely check this out.