A first-grade teacher recently told me of a sad trend among her students. At the end of the day, she stands in the playground waving good-bye as her kids climb into the backseats of their parents’ cars. As they excitedly scramble into the car seats she witnesses their enthusiasm as they can’t stop talking about their day. The parents, however, are becoming increasing non-responsive. Instead, they are looking, not back towards their child but down, absorbed in their electronic devices.
When I heard this story I was imagining what the relationship between these children and their parents would be in a few years when the parents want their teenager’s attention.
The distraction of these parents is a symptom of how we have allowed technology to capture our attention and disrupt our connections. Daniel Goleman in his book, Focus, tells us that in 2006 the word pizzled entered our lexicon: a combination of puzzled and pissed, it captured the feeling people had when the person they were with whipped out a BlackBerry and started talking to someone else. Back then people felt hurt and indignant in such moments. Today it is the norm.
The onslaught of incoming data leads to an inability to focus on a simple task like reading or attending to people before we get an urge to go online to check our email or texts. The volume of the messages leaves us too little time simply to reflect on what the messages even mean.
This inability to attend was foreseen in 1977 by the Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon. Writing about the coming information-rich world, he warned that information consumes “the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
Learning to make contact with people in an attention impoverished world works like strengthening a muscle. If the skill isn’t developed it can wither; exercise it and it grows. Here are three ways to develop your capacity to attend to what matters – a vital leadership and relationship skill in our complex, demanding world.
1) Turn off technology. I know people who, after reading two pages or talking with someone for two minutes, become anxious or have a craving to check email or incoming texts. It’s addictive. Schedule times to check your email, and turn off the message alert in between. Make a pact with people at work that you will be present during certain times in the day or the week – without technology interruptions. Remind those who depend on you that the world won’t stop if you take a few hours before responding to an email. When you get home from work, practice leaving your phone in a drawer while you are present for the people you care most about.
2) Practice a little dose of empathy every day. Empathy is the ability to “feel with” another person, to convey understanding from another’s frame of reference. Empathy isn’t about trying to “fix” somebody or rescue anyone from their unhappiness, but means putting yourself in their place, and attending to them with caring presence. Every day presents opportunities to express empathy and connect with someone on an emotional level, even for a few moments. You can even do this at a bus stop when you recognize that the person standing next to you is cold, or pay some attention to a colleague down the hall who is nervous about the possibility of being laid off. This is how you cultivate trust, give others a sense of belonging, and make room for human contact. Devices will never be able to convey empathy.
3) Get on the bench. I heard once that when Wayne Gretzky sat on the bench between shifts on the ice, he could lower his heart rate from 180 BPM to below 50 in less than a minute. He was able to completely unplug from the intensity of the game during these rest periods. For many of us, it’s a luxury to get some uninterrupted private moments during the day when we can lean back, rest, and reflect. We are always “on the ice,” in the midst of nonstop emails and demands from others. Without time to rest, our brain is thrown into a state that opposes the open focus where innovation flourishes. In the tumult of daily demands and to-do lists, there is no room for creativity that comes from focused attention. The stories of significant discoveries are rife with tales of brilliant insight during a walk, in the shower, or on a vacation. Down time lets the creative juices flow. Tight schedules kill innovation and connection. Take some unproductive time daily to simply tune in and attend to the natural world around you. Or just stop for a few moments at your desk. Sit back. Close your eyes. And take a little non-thinking time for yourself. What Daniel Goleman calls a “creative cocoon.” Get off the ice of demands every so often and onto the bench.
How do you strengthen your attention muscle? How do you practice being present and tuned in to the world around you? How are you there for others? How does increasing your ability to be attentive improve the quality of your life and relationships?