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It's Time to Take Back Your Attention

by Tony Schwartz on May 4, 2011


tony-schwartz's picture

It's Time to Take Back Your Attention

When I sat down to write this blog, it was the most important thing on my agenda. Even so, I did just about everything I could think of to avoid the task. Facing a blank page, I figured I would just check my email first, or update my Facebook or Twitter, or check the morning headlines in The New York Times, or read the comments readers left overnight on earlier posts I'd done.

Something insidious has happened. The same device most of us use to get our primary work accomplished--a computer, a smartphone, an iPad, or some combination of the above--is also now the repository of endless distractions and every imaginable source of immediate gratification.

It's nearly impossible now to ignore the siren call of Google and YouTube, books and blogs, TV shows and movies, music and video games, email and texting, newspapers and magazines, and countless web sites and apps--always just a few clicks or keystrokes away as we settle in to work.

We're free to indulge our every whim, no matter how trivial, and that's exactly what we do.

The social critic Linda Stone calls this fractured form of focus "continuous partial attention." "We keep the top level item in focus and scan the periphery in case something more important emerges," she explains. Or something more alluring, reassuring, or simply less demanding.

Staying singly focused on a task in this digital era is like trying to resist eating while sitting in a bakery as cookies, pies, and cakes emerge fresh and fragrant from the oven. There's a reason Cinnabon points its air vents out into the corridors at airports.

The easier it is to indulge our desires, the harder it is to exercise self-control.

Human beings weren't designed to manage the level of temptation to which we're exposed every day. That's why--irrational as it is--we take on more and more debt, grow fatter and fatter, continue to profligately spend down the earth's finite resources, and struggle to pay attention to anything for very long.

I share this view with Daniel Akst, author of We Have Met the Enemy: Self Control in an Age of Excess. It's one of the most important books I've ever read--trenchant, compelling, elegantly written, and scary in its implications. It's also the sort of book most of us avoid because we don't want to engage with anything that makes us feel bad.

Instead, like children, we want what we want now. And in recent years, science has helped us to understand better just what we're up against when it comes to self-control.

We now know, for example, that it's more immediately exciting to flit from subject to subject than it is to stay concentrated on one thing at time. We're gluttons for novelty. That's because the thrill of the new activates dopamine, the neurotransmitter in our brains associated with pleasure.

Once we've experienced an initial rush, we're inclined to keep seeking it, even as the pleasure diminishes over time, and even when the consequences are ultimately self-defeating--as they are from overeating, or snorting cocaine, or shifting focus from one object of attention to another.

As off-putting as I find Amy Chua's Tiger Mother approach, I share her conviction that the capacity to tolerate discomfort and delay gratification in the short term is the key to achieving any form of excellence in the long term.

Unfortunately, we each have an infinite capacity for self-deception. Even our prefrontal cortex--our reflective mind--can get co-opted by our most urgent and primitive desires. Rather than making thoughtful, reasoned choices, we often end up using the highest capacities of our brain to rationalize, justify and minimize our self-destructive behaviors.

So how do we stop kidding ourselves and take back control of our attention--and our lives? Here are six simple ways to start:

  1. Let your deepest values become a more powerful guide to your behaviors
    What do you truly stand for? How do you want to behave, no matter what? Keep those commitments front and center through your days, both as a source of energy and direction for your behaviors.
  2. Slow down
    The faster you're moving, the more likely you're reacting rather than reflecting. Set aside intentional times during the day--they can be as short as a minute or two--to check in with yourself. Think of them as "wake up" calls.
  3. Build deliberate practices
    Set up ritualized behaviors you do at specific times until they become automatic. For example, begin by doing the most important thing first in the morning, uninterrupted, for 60 to 90 minutes. Make the start time and the stop time inviolable, so you know exactly how long you're going to have to stay the course.
  4. Create "precommitments" to minimize temptation
    Our capacity for self-control gets depleted every time we exercise it. Turn off your email entirely at certain times during the day. Consider working at times on a laptop that isn't hooked up to the Internet. Do this for the same reason you should remove alluring foods from your shelves (or avoid all-you-can-eat buffets) when you're on a diet.
  5. Share your commitments
    Tell others what it is you're intending to do, and ask them to hold you accountable. If you work in an office, get others to make the same commitment with you--and choose the most public way possible for everyone to share how they're doing.
  6. Start small
    Attention operates like a muscle. Subject it to stress--but not too much stress--and over time your attention will get stronger. What's your current limit for truly focused concentration? Build it up in increments. And don't go past 90 minutes without a break.

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tom-gorski's picture

I totally agree that staying focused on a single task when you are bombarded with distractions can be very challenging. Having said that, there are some techniques (like the Pomodoro) which help you focus on a single task for short periods of time without getting distracted at all.

The question is, how does our short attention span affect us as both as employers and employees. While some people are becoming more efficient when they have a wide range of tools and services at their disposal, others are completely the opposite.

At our company, we do our best to foster productivity and efficiency.

zachary-livingston's picture

Take back your time, attention, energy, and emotions from anyone who treats your heart carelessly. Be strong especially when the hard times come, be wiser because of your mistakes, and most especially be happy because of your sad experiences. Let go of the past and the past will let go of you.

marc-sokol's picture
A great list, Tony!  In my work I've come to look for what I refer to as EADD, or Executive Attention Deficit Disorder.  It starts with the best of  intentions, the desire to do more and be all things to the business, to customers and employees.  Almost all of us can do this to some extent and almost none of us realize when our multitasking behavior is essentially the same as driving beyond our headlights!   So we think we are multi-tasking while still showing interest and 'just enough' attention, not realizing that others think we have checked out!  
This goes on all the time in the workplace.  Ironically, if you have  4-6 year old child who is telling you a story, they will quickly pick up on your EADD behavior and literally take your face in hand and redirect your attention back to them.  Budding executive coaches, aren't they!   :-)
I've written several posts about this topic. One of them builds off the Chinese word for listening, which is something we do with our eyes, ears, heart and undivided attention (check it out at if interested).  
Here is one other tactics that works well: it combines sharing commitments with deliberate practices.  When someone wants 30 minutes of your time, offer 25 of full attention if they will commit to not exceeding 25.  If they ask for 60 minutes offer 50.  Discipline yourself to the committed time and use the spare time to prioritize other activities of deal with the flood of things that came in during the meeting.  People will come to your meetings better prepared to use the time well and help manage the time boundaries if you hold to them yourself.
Thanks for a great post!
bernd-nurnberger's picture
Thank you for sharing, Tony. I can use that.

If staying this course gets tough, I suspect there is resistance to overcome, as explained in the manifesto Do the Work by Steven Pressfield. A quick read.

Here is the author in an interview [video 2:33]. And action.

andrew-armour's picture
An excellent article Tony. People often mistake busyness with productivity and dismiss systems and process as being 'too conventional'. Your suggestion for routine and discipline is not the most fashionable pieces of advice but one of the most valuable. I am reminded of what Kevin Roberts of Saatchi and Saatchi explains; "even Picasso worked inside a frame - creative people need bounderies". Technology and network communicationsare a double edged sword. Accesing the latest thinking, relevant news and ideas can give you momentum and edge but it can also distract. I try to confine my blog, network and social media activity into two blocks, one first thing in the morning, one mid-afternoon with the specific purpose (at the moment) of finding useful articles, news or clips that I can send to my most valuable contacts. As the brilliant Al Ries says "Good Things Happen When You Narrow The Focus".