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Improve Your Attention Span Through Self-Awareness

attention-span-self-awareness

Improve Your Attention Span Through Self-Awareness

By Ann Flanagan Petry

“You think because you understand ‘one’ you must also understand ‘two’, because one and one make two. But you must also understand ‘and’.” – Rumi

In the workplace, we often fall into just the trap that Rumi describes. We think that because we understand how to be busy accomplishing tasks (one) we also understand how to be effective in our work (two). So, we focus on agendas, “to do” lists, and clearing out our in-box. But when we do that, we are missing out on the quiet yet critical, “and” in the equation: the powerful force of mindful self-awareness.

Attention span is the length of time you’re able to concentrate on a single activity before becoming distracted. The longer you’re able to sustain attention, the more likely you are to gain depth and quality in things like learning or creating. This impacts work and life in a myriad of ways, from increasing productivity to being able to express the best of what we have to offer. But how can we improve our attention span effectively?

Self-Awareness is a Verb

Self-awareness is often referred to as a static state within leadership competencies: “he has self-awareness.” In other words, he has met this competency and we can check “goal met.” However, it is important to recognize self-awareness is really more of a verb and refers to an ongoing process. To understand this more fully, take a moment and tune-in to your own mind and body right now… What do you notice? Indeed, recognizing what is happening in any given moment – from the inside out – can be a bit of a shock. Someone once described it as hearing one insult after another. Others have said it was like an endless barrage of complaints… what isn’t working… what isn’t good enough. Beyond being aware of the internal narrator, we might notice other things, like the tension we are holding in our bodies or the incessant urge to stay busy – to be productive.  This is self-awareness. Remarkably, our inner experience is ever changing and shifting. Awareness of this reality is at the heart of the self-awareness competency.

The Challenge of Continuous Partial Attention

In fact, the cultivation of the competency of self-awareness is becoming more critical for 21st century leaders. To understand just how important, consider the increasing regularity of lack of self-awareness occurring in daily life. Linda Stone coined the term Continuous Partial Attention (CPA). Stone, a former Silicon Valley executive, honed her leadership skills at both Apple and Microsoft. She discovered this from observing leaders all around her. Continuous Partial Attention coupled with fear of missing out (FOMO) is the new normal. We take our smart phones out at the slightest hint of a wait, whether it’s at the grocery store or the stoplight. Both terms describe a recent human phenomenon: a constant state of anxiety and hyper-vigilance to attend to texts, social media, and email… all at the same time!

To demonstrate this further, a survey of Canadian media consumption by Microsoft concluded that the average attention span had fallen to eight seconds, down from 12 in the year 2000. We now have a shorter attention span than goldfish, the study found.  Attention span was defined as “the amount of concentrated time on a task without becoming distracted.”  Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft believes human attention is “the true scarce commodity” of the near future.  Daniel Goleman describes the impact of “the impoverishment of attention” in his book, Focus, The Hidden Driver of Excellence.

Self-Awareness as an  Inner-Rudder

Notably, according to Goleman, “self-awareness, particularly accuracy in decoding the internal cues of our body’s murmurs, holds the key” and is an inner-rudder that can bring us back to deepening attention. As a result, numerous organizations are explicitly coaching and training employees in awareness skill-building. The organizations range from multinational corporations to city governments.

Inspired by the work of neuroscience researcher, Richard J. Davidson and his vision to “imagine a world where we could improve our capacity to pay attention by even 5%,” Sara Flitner, former Mayor of Jackson, Wyoming, together with the support and funding of the Wellness Department at St. John’s Medical Center (SJMC)  partnered with the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Center for Healthy Minds to offer research-based practices in well-being and leadership development. Together, they undertook a community-wide initiative to bring this content and learning to elected officials, school administrators, as well as hospital and town leaders.

Also of note, a large professional services firm engaged the Center for Healthy Minds to train hundreds among its leadership ranks. Michele Nevarez, a positive organizational development consultant and adjunct faculty with the Wisconsin School of Business helped facilitate the neuroscience-based leadership training for Jackson’s leaders and the firm. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Nevarez believes the sessions met a critical need of bringing key stakeholders together to apply practices that strengthen attentional focus and promote renewal. This can help to combat the daily information overload and allow for better coping with the stresses of everyday life, which if left unmanaged can undermine well-being.

The challenge of Continuous Partial Attention and information overload is a common and tremendously difficult problem that is growing with each new wave of technological capabilities. Yet, we are discovering people are adaptive and have agency to choose how and what to pay attention to.

Try this:

Choose a time of day, or trigger activity (such as for 10 minutes before or after eating lunch) and check in with yourself. You can even schedule this on your calendar for reminders and to insure you’re not interrupted. What do you feel in your mind and body? A sense of hurry to get back to work? Unease from lack of sleep or lingering emotion from disagreement with your spouse? The simple act of tuning in and noticing what comes up is, in essence, the practice of tapping into one’s emotional self-awareness and attention. With regular practice, this can help deepen and lengthen attention span by rewiring the brain to be more at ease with less reactivity to external impulses. It will also help to combat the daily information overload, allowing for better coping of the stresses of everyday life.

Ann Flanagan Petry is a Positive Organizational Development Consultant, Coach and Contributing Author of the forthcoming book, Advancing Relationship-Based Cultures. She has over 20 years of experience driving performance improvement in organizations. She partners with leaders to cultivate resilient, mindful, emotionally intelligent teams who improve clients, their own and their organization’s performance and wellbeing. 

Recommended Reading:

Interested in learning more about Emotional Self-Awareness? Our newly released Primer provides a concise overview of this Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competency. It is co-written by several thought leaders in the field of emotional intelligence, leadership development, and research: Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, Vanessa Druskat, Richard Davidson, and George Kohlrieser. See the Primer here.

Ep 162: Thriving on Change: Improving natural abilities for focus and attention

Welcome to the More Than Sound podcast. 

ThrivingOnChange-Square

In this episode…

Daniel Goleman talks with Elad Levinson, leadership coach and organizational consultant, about how mindfulness training can help leaders improve on their natural abilities for focus and attention.

This conversation is an excerpt from Thriving on Change: The Evolving Leader’s Toolkit, a Praxis You online course available at morethansound.net that teaches leaders how to respond expertly to uncertainty and conflict in their work.

Effective leaders are focused leaders.

“If you want to be focused, if you want to be effective, you can’t just let any old whim or whatever that comes along,” said Daniel Goleman. “You need to make some choices.  And the choices are internal. And in order to make that choice, you need to know what’s going on inside me now. Is this where I want to be or can I be somewhere better? That act is called mindfulness. Noticing what’s going on within you and using that information to manage yourself better, because self-management starts with self-awareness. And mindfulness is the toolkit for that.” 

About Thriving on Change: The Evolving Leader’s Toolkit

Thriving on Change integrates the necessary proven-effective skills, tools, and practices to ensure leaders expertly respond to uncertainty, conflict, and inevitable distraction. Unlike other leadership development courses, this program is delivered in bite-size chunks, designed to enlist all of your learning faculties. And because we all learn differently, each course offers a balance of:

  • video
  • audio
  • animation
  • self-assessments
  • discussion forums
  • downloadable practices
  • personal reflection
  • reading on your own time.

 

Round-Up: How to Help Kids Focus

How to Help Kids Focus

What if there was a way to teach our children skills that could help them achieve better academic performance, enhance personal development, and improve relationship skills?

This past Sunday, Daniel Goleman gave a special presentation at JCC Manahattan about his latest book with Peter Senge, The Triple Focus: A New Approach to Education.

More Than Sound was at the talk. We live tweeted some key points throughout the talk. Below are some highlights from the #triplefocus feed, with excerpts from a few of Daniel’s articles for supplemental reading.

A wealth of information means a poverty of attention.

Key takeaway from Pay Attention to Attention:

“…a constant stream of distraction draws attention away from what’s immediately at hand; those seemingly urgent rings and alerts may not be crucial. Working to maintain clear focus on a task – despite intrusions – consistently occupies the brain’s circuitry for attention. “Cognitive effort” is the technical expression for the mental attention demanded to process our information load. Just like the muscles in our bodies, attention can become fatigued. Common symptoms of attention fatigue are lowered effectiveness, increased distractedness, and irritability. These symptoms also indicate depletion in the energy required to sustain neural functioning.”

Read the full article

We need to take back choice when it comes to our attention.

Key takeaway from Think About the Benefits of Unplugging:

“We can be more skillful at not being hijacked by distractions. We may notice them, but there’s a big difference between noticing that something may be occurring, being aware of it, and being hijacked by it, being pulled away from one’s central focus.”

Read the full article

Concentration predicts performance.

Key takeaway from The Benefits of a Productive Cocoon

“We all need a productive cocoon, a time we protect our focus from the multitude of distractions: emails, tweets, updates, and the rest of the onslaught. Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, psychologists at Harvard Business School, studied 238 members of teams engaged in creative projects, from designing new kitchen gear to complex information technology systems. The team members kept daily diaries of their work days, including how productive and satisfying they found each day. The most productive and satisfying days, hands down, came when they were able to have unbroken time to focus on their project. These productive cocoons are where they came up with small wins, like innovations, problem solving, and taking concrete steps toward their goal.”

Read the full article

The leader of a group sets the emotional mood of the group.

Key takeaway from Be Mindful of the Emotions You Leave Behind:

“Not all emotional partners are equal. A power dynamic operates in emotional contagion, determining which person’s brain will more forcefully draw the other into its emotional orbit. Mirror neurons are leadership tools: Emotions flow with special strength from the more socially dominant person to the less. Another powerful reason for leaders to be mindful of what they say to employees: people recall negative interactions with a boss with more intensity, in more detail, and more often than they do positive ones. The ease with which demotivation can be spread by a boss makes it all the more imperative for him to act in ways that make the emotions left behind uplifting ones.”

Read the full article

Emotions are contagious.

Key takeaway from How Moods Impact Results:

“While mild anxiety (such as over a looming deadline) can focus attention and energy, prolonged distress can sabotage a leader’s relationships and also hamper work performance by diminishing the brain’s ability to process information and respond effectively. A good laugh or an upbeat mood, on the other hand, more often enhances the neural abilities crucial for doing good work.”

Read the full article

Additional resources:

Raising Students Emotional IQs

PODCAST: Daniel Goleman on The Triple Focus: A New Approach to Education

VIDEO: Peter Senge on Teaching Systems Thinking in Schools

 

Hone Your Focus: Learning and the Brain

learning and the brain

Daniel Goleman addressed the importance of adopting attention-training strategies in the classroom at today’s Learning and the Brain conference in Boston.

Focused, Organized Minds: Using Brain Science to Engage Attention in a Distracted World explored how today’s technology is creating more classroom distractions and disorganization. Yet, academic testing and Common Core State Standards require students to be more focused and organized in order to succeed.

We followed attendee’s enthusiastic commentary about Dr. Goleman’s presentation on Twitter. Below are some highlights from #LB39 feed, with excerpts from a few of Daniel’s articles for supplemental reading.

From @onelearner1

There are deeply rooted beliefs in education that overly favor IQ over EQ #LB39

Key takeaway from It’s Not IQ Part 2: Use The Triple Focus Approach to Education:

There’s no doubt that IQ and motivation predict good grades. But when you enter the working world, IQ plays a different role: it sorts people into the jobs they can hold. Stellar work in school pays off in getting intellectually challenging jobs.

Read the full article

From @HeatherSugrue

#lb39 @DanielGolemanEI Attention is a mental muscle – we can strengthen it.

Key takeaway from What Helps Kids Focus – and Why They Need Help:

The more a youngster can practice keeping her focus and resist distraction, the stronger and more richly connected this neural real estate becomes. By the same token, the more distracted, the less so.

This mental ability is like a muscle: it needs proper exercise to grow strong. One way to help kids: give them regular sessions of focusing time, the mental equivalent of workouts in the gym. I’ve seen this done in schools, with second-graders becoming calm and concentrated with a daily session of watching their breath – the basic training in bringing a wandering mind back to a single focus.

Read the full article

From @Demers_k8lyn

#LB39 Amygdala Highjack – We can only pay attention to what we think is threatening. @DanielGolemanEI @learningandtheb

Key takeaway from The Two Biggest Distractions – and What to do About Them:

The brain’s wiring gives preference to our emotional distractions, creating pressing thought loops about whatever’s upsetting us. Our brain wants us to pay attention to what matters to us, like a problem in our relationships.

Read the full article

From @malalande

With digital devices, we process 5 times more info than before according to @DanielGolemanEI at #LB39

Key takeaway from Think About the Benefits of Unplugging:

There is now quite a bit of evidence to indicate that the circuits in the brain that play a role in regulating our attention, and very rigorous behavioral measures of attention, change in response to mindfulness meditation practice. One of the central indices of that change is our capacity to not be hijacked by distracting events in our environment, particularly distracting emotional signals, which often pull us away from our task at hand.

Read the full article

Additional resources:

The Triple Focus: A New Approach to Education

Focus for Kids: Enhancing Concentration, Caring and Calm

Focus for Teens: Enhancing Concentration, Caring and Calm

Bridging the Hearts and Minds of Youth Conference Videos – 2012 and 2013