I was a new public-speaking teacher and it was speech day. One of my students, scheduled to give his informative speech, gathered his notes and his pen, walked up to the lectern, and began. For the entire speech, he drummed his pen against the lectern.
After class as we were walking out, he asked how he did. I gave him some positive feedback and then said, “One thing to pay attention to is what you’re doing with your hands when you speak. You banged your pen on the lectern for most of your speech.”
He stopped in his tracks. “No, I didn’t.”
This isn’t that uncommon, to be giving a speech and be completely unaware of what you’re saying or what you’re doing. After that conversation, I started having my students record their speeches so they could go back and watch themselves. I do it today with my clients.
Think of when you are most absorbed in something. It might be when you are cooking or writing. Or reading. Hiking. Giving a presentation. Playing a game.
Paying attention is the not-so-simple act of being aware of where you are and what you’re doing at any given moment. The truth is, because of the onslaught of information competing for your attention, that kind of focus is rare.
In Daniel Golman’s book “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence,” he points out the repercussions of this “information-rich” society. “It’s not just that we’ve developed habits of attention that make us less effective, but that the weight of messages leaves us too little time simply to reflect on what they really mean.”
The Inner Office, an occasional cartoon series in the Business Journal - (Illustration/Sarah Colantonio)
What is the cost of not paying attention? What is your lack of focus costing you?
Being inattentive can lead to all sorts of problems. We can mess up at work. We can forget something important we need to do. We can hurt someone’s feelings. It can cause anxiety, stress, frustration.
Stress, anxiety and frustration are natural parts of life. We expect to feel these things. Research suggests that what is most predictive of our physical and mental health isn’t whether we have stress, but how we deal with it.
While in some cultures, the word stress is not even in the lexicon, we do have stress in our vocabulary. It tenses our shoulders simply thinking about the word. Paying attention helps us manage stress in a way that changes our reaction. If you are tense and you notice the sensation, suddenly you become at least a little separated from the experience, and can deal with it more objectively.
In “Made to Stick,” authors Chip and Dan Heath posit that mental simulation helps us manage emotions, solve problems and build skills. Additionally, subjects in a study who were asked to spend time visualizing a problem they were currently dealing with ended up reporting feelings of positivity and had taken more steps to handle the problem effectively. Simple attention tends to minimize negative reactions. Noticing and naming it separates you from it.
So, if increased focus yields such a big payoff, why not throw your whole mind and body into mastering it? The following are methods for paying attention, one geared toward the body and the other toward the mind.
This exercise of noticing what’s happening in your body takes only a few minutes. While in your chair, close your eyes and notice how your head feels. Now be attentive to the sensation in your eyes. Notice how they feel in your eye sockets. Pay attention to the sensation in your jaw. Let it relax if it’s tense. Notice the feeling in your neck and shoulders. Go all the way to the bottom of your feet, noticing the sensations.
The psychologist and mindfulness teacher Dr. Tara Brach says that to “bring attention to a primary subject (like the body) can lead to a concentrated focus that naturally calms and collects the mind.”
The gut scan is when you take a look at how you’re feeling. You interview yourself. At the end of the day, go through these questions: What was most life-giving about today? What was most life-draining about today? When did I feel most connected to another person or people today? When did I feel most separate from others? When was I kind today? When did I withhold kindness? When was I most focused today? When was I the least focused?
Paying attention takes intentionality. We certainly have many distractions. At the very least, notice what is taking up your time.
Would signing off social media help your focus? Would adopting some kind of daily practice help? A colleague told me recently she was going to start walking as a form of focus. This is an activity she loves, so her chances of success are high. Back to Goleman’s book, he talked to one executive who said, “When I notice that my mind has been somewhere else during a meeting, I wonder what opportunities I’ve been missing right here.”
And that’s really the key. When we’re curious we pay attention. And we rarely miss an opportunity to grow.
Sarah Colantonio works at Work Wisdom LLC, a consulting firm in Lancaster County. Her focus is on communication and mindfulness in the workplace. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.