Over the last few years, I’ve tried my hand at gardening. No matter how good my intentions, something always goes wrong. I’ll spend a weekend elbow-deep in the dirt, planting vegetables and imagining summer salads made entirely from my garden. But then I end up with dry, dead stems. It starts to get frustrating. I harvest olives every year — I should be good at this! My wife pointed out that when we go to my hometown for the olive harvest, that’s all I have to do. My attention is completely on the task at hand. At home, my attention is pulled in a million different directions. It’s hard to pay attention to germination schedules when there’s so much else going on.
By paying attention to the things that matter to you, you’re investing in yourself, your goals, and your future. It sounds obvious, but it’s harder to implement day-to-day. There are the usual distractions: like email, social media, and meetings. More recently, with the COVID-19 pandemic, I find myself checking news feeds more than ever and dealing with the additional distractions of working from home — and I’m sure I’m not alone.
As leaders, we’re pulled in a lot of directions at once. We engage with our teams at work, with our families, and with our communities. We stay informed by reading articles and listening to podcasts. We fulfill our responsibilities by going to meetings, responding to emails, and picking up our kids from baseball practice.
So, how can we balance external demands with work that we care about?
Take back control
You can either control your attention, or it will control you. You’re either proactively deciding what’s important to you, or you’re responding to outside forces, whether that’s agreeing to meetings or looking at your push notifications at dinner. It can be difficult to say no or not engage with technology and people who are vying for your attention. But, if you say yes to everything, you’re letting someone else dictate your priorities.
Here are some strategies for controlling your attention.
Set professional boundaries
Boundaries are essential in all relationships, personal and professional. Often, when we hear the word “boundary,” we think of a restriction or distancing measure. But boundaries are about setting limits, which gives us a better sense of autonomy, that way we can more effectively engage with others.
Defining our boundaries in the workplace — for example, who’s responsible for what — enables us to hold each other accountable and be more effective in our roles. Another important boundary is managing your calendar. Schedule independent work time like you would an important meeting with yourself. It may initially feel like you’re making yourself being less available, but protecting your time prevents burnout and gives you the time to turn your attention to more impactful work.
Set personal boundaries, too
Sometimes, when a coworker is also a trusted friend or confidant, it can be hard to follow your own rules on emotional boundaries, and we end up taking things too personally. If you’re discussing a project, for example, set expectations for the conversation in advance. Be specific about what kind of feedback you’re looking for and listen for the same from your colleagues. Every relationship is a little different, but leading with kindness is always a good idea.
Learn to say ‘no’
Being kind doesn’t mean always saying yes. Saying yes to everything dilutes the amount of time you can spend on your high priority projects. You can say no while being helpful, understanding, and nice — but not too nice. It’s okay to be firm. You don’t need an excuse. You are allowed to protect your own time and attention. For me, every time I have to say no to something, I am mindful of why, which helps me refocus on what I care about, not what I’m leaving behind.
Beyond the office
The startup mentality makes it seem like we always have to be “on” — even our hobbies should be making us money. But paying meaningful attention to your non-work priorities is crucial, too. A well-rounded life requires cultivating meaningful relationships and quality rest.
When you are socializing, make the interactions more meaningful. Be mindful and present in the moments with your friends and family — while the point isn’t to make you a better manager per se, it does help. Put down your phone and let yourself be silly or sentimental. The hustle can wait.
When you’re resting, really rest. It’s one of the first things to drop if you aren’t paying attention, but it’s critical for your performance at work. Read for pleasure, listen to music, daydream or just sleep.
And get in the habit of stashing your smartphone out of sight. Our phones are persistent distractions whenever they’re near us. Alerts and notifications immediately pull your attention from your task at hand, even if you ignore them. Let your technology work for you rather than the other way around.
You can’t control what happens in your life, but you can control how you react to it. By focusing your attention on what matters to you, you’re far more likely to make progress toward your goals, no matter what life throws your way.