What we’re paying attention to today

I think of two paragraphs on Attention from Eric Weiner’s book – “The Geography of Bliss” – from time to time.

“Attention’ is an underrated word. It doesn’t get the… well, the attention it deserves. We pay homage to love, and happiness, and, God knows, productivity, but rarely do we have anything good to say about attention. We’re too busy, I suspect. Yet our lives are empty and meaningless without attention.

My two-year-old daughter fusses at my feet as I type these words. What does she want? My love? Yes, in a way, but what she really wants is my attention. Pure, undiluted attention. Children are expert at recognizing counterfeit attention. Perhaps love and attention are really the same thing. One can’t exist without the other.”

The quote “show me your schedule and I’ll show you your priorities” has the right idea. Our schedule is a reflection of what we pay attention to.

What are we paying attention to today?

Fully engaged

What would it take for you to be fully engaged throughout the day? By fully engaged, I mean paying full attention to whatever you are doing. You could be paying attention to two things at once if you are working through a repetitive task. But, that should be the exception and not the rule.

As I ask myself that question, I realize that full engagement entails a collection of ideas that I’ve grouped into hygiene factors (the basic things we need to get right), organization factors and the inspiration factor.

I. Hygiene factors

Sleep. Full engagement is tiring.

Good diet. Replenishing our energy store is important during the day. The better the diet, the better our energy in the long run. And, caffeine isn’t a long term solution. :)

An active lifestyle. Full engagement requires a high level of energy. And, it is hard to maintain high energy without an active lifestyle.

II. Organization factors

A solid week plan. I think a good week is structured like a music performance. It has its ebbs and flows (meeting days and deep work days) so as to allow you to push hard on some days and recover on others.

Clear priorities. Unclear priorities results in a lack of focus. I’ve also come to realize that clarity of priorities requires us to keep committing to re-prioritizing through the day as we get newer information.

A realistic to do list. Being overwhelmed isn’t conducive to full engagement. Keeping a realistic to do list requires us to say no to things we can’t get done in a day. This isn’t an easy practice. But, keeping our work schedule contained is an important practice for long term engagement.

III. The inspiration factor

Clarity of purpose. While the above ensure a certain amount of energy during the week, clarity of purpose is where energy and inspiration and come from.

Your list may be a bit different. Your ordering will likely be different. But, this collection of factors is likely to remain.

Regardless of what the specifics are, I’ve come to realize that asking ourselves the question – “What will it take to be fully engaged?” – is among the most powerful life process questions there is. For, attention and engagement is where love, growth and appreciation reside.

Thank you so much

I met a much wiser friend for coffee a few weeks ago and noticed something small that has stuck with me. Every time we received something from the staff at the coffee shop, he would stop, turn to them and say – “Thank you *so* much.”

I wondered why that moment stuck with me for a few weeks until I finally realized the difference. While I made it a point to say thank you, I would often be looking elsewhere or just interrupting my conversation for a brief moment. He, on the other hand, made sure he said “thank you so much” (with that all important emphasis on “so”) by giving the person he was thanking his full attention.

People always talk about charisma being an “X” factor – one they’re unable to define or teach. I think of charisma as the ability to make others feel special – even if you meet them for small amounts of time. And, giving them your full attention is the best way to do that.

Attention is a magical thing – it can transform simple messages into warm, inspiring and heartfelt ones. I am going to work on my thank you’s…

Early warning systems

I had a horrible record of listening to my own body while growing up. This manifested itself in a very predictable pattern of illness – I typically went 6-8 months without falling ill thanks to my willpower and then followed by getting completely knocked out for 1-2 weeks. This was because of my tendency to work in bursts, burn myself out, and then need recovery. My tonsilitis inflammation rate, for example, was a joke. I used to have one very painful week every 3-6 months (happy to share that it is down to one in the last 2 years now). Folks who have tonsils prone to inflammation will probably understand that tonsil inflammation is one of those illnesses that has obvious triggers and many early warning signs.

I have been actively working to avoid this tendency over the past few years as it signifies many of the things I am working to change about myself – consistency vs. sporadic bursts, embracing my introversion, learning to listen to my gut and then understand when it is right and when it isn’t.

So, after two weeks of intense activity with far too much social stimulation, I had all sorts of early warning signals go off when I woke up on Sunday morning. My throat has been feeling funny, my stomach feels like it has gone for a toss and I just feel like I need a break. Here’s the best part – I would barely have noticed this 4 years ago as all these signals are relatively mild. My natural instinct is to power through them. This was supposed to be my week of returning to the daily work-out routine, for example. My focus would have been to just get that done no matter what.

Thankfully, I know better now. Getting the work-out routine done would be efficient but I am almost completely certain that it would mean I would fall sick within the next 3 days. I am now working to respond to these warnings – sleeping as much as I can, eating regularly, drinking warm water, and pacing myself. I’m not sure if I heard these too late or acted on these too late as yet but I’m certainly going to give prevention my best shot.

Good leaders understand and leverage early warning systems. They do so by really understanding the teams they lead and the systems they manage. Careful observation always gives us an idea of the leading indicators. The best hunter gatherer chiefs always knew when bad weather was on its way. The birds and animals made certain noises that foretold it. These chiefs just needed to pay attention.

As leaders of our own selves and within our own families, it is entirely our responsibility to develop early warning systems. An explosive argument with your spouse or significant other almost certainly didn’t occur because of what you did just now. It was an accumulation of many annoyances. With better early warning systems, we can work to prevent issues before they occur.

The onus is on us to observe, pay attention, and then respond.