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Are you paying attention?

25 June 2015

Are you paying attention?

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According to Harvard researchers, we spend 46.9 percent of our time thinking about something other than what we're doing, and this 'mind wandering' is making us unhappy. As other cultures have advocated for centuries, it turns out we're at our happiest when we allow ourselves to live in the 'here and now' and fully engage in the task at hand.

The problem with paying attention in this way is that our minds are naturally programmed to wander off. The chances are that even though you set out to read this article, it won't be long before you just start scanning it while you think about or distract yourself with something else.

Used excessively, this cognitive ability, for the mind to leave the present and wander off, comes at an emotional price, making us far more susceptible to stress, anxiety and depression. So how can you and your workforce rediscover 'paying attention' to increase engagement and happiness levels?

Switch-off the autopilot

The ability to multi-task is by no means a bad thing: it allows surgeons to monitor and respond to a patient's vital signs while performing heart surgery, and alerts anyone driving a car to potential hazards. It also means we can perform tasks we've done many times before, like getting dressed, without having to really think about what we're doing.

The catch is that when we're in 'autopilot', we're living in our heads rather than in the moment. If we do this too much, it becomes increasingly difficult to stay in the present. For example, we might ask someone „How are you?‟ only to drift back into our own thoughts before we've even listened to their response. Our ability to multi-task means we can still pick out just enough information to respond to what they said, but we're not really tuned in.

Not paying attention to others in this way diminishes their experience of interacting with you, impairing your ability to build relationships. When you live your life „in your head‟, you can never full engage with what's going on around you, making you far more forgetful and susceptible to making mistakes, not to mention stressed-out and unhappy.

Mindfulness, the art of staying focused in the present moment through learning how to calmly acknowledge and release your thoughts, was initially developed to help people struggling with feelings of anxiety or depression to step outside their minds. It's a technique that proved so effective at improving mental health it's now being used by organisations to help employees take back control of their autopilots. For example, employers in construction are teaching employees mindfulness to increase their ability to focus on what they and their colleagues are doing, to reduce the risk of accidents. Companies in other sectors are exploring the link between paying attention and higher levels of functioning to help increase engagement and productivity.

Whatever your reason for wanting to enhance your employees' ability to fully focus on what they're doing, the good news is that by doing so you'll also be boosting their mental health.

Eliminate distractions

Given the natural propensity to let our minds wander, it doesn't take much to allow ourselves to lose focus on what we're doing. By encouraging employees to focus on completing tasks in between checking emails, you can dramatically increase productivity and reduce stress levels.

Creating a culture where people are encouraged to distance themselves from distractions is critical if they're to focus on the task at hand. I recently went to a client event where everyone was asked to turn their phones off at the outset and instead concentrate only on what was happening in the room. Although it was initially uncomfortable, everyone agreed by the end that we'd really benefited from being able to fully immerse ourselves in the session without the normal interruptions and distractions.

By encouraging people to bring their full attention to important meetings or team-building days, and officially banning distractions, you can give people first-hand experience of what it feels like to fully concentrate and increase the benefits they're getting from the session.

Bring back the art of concentration

One of the reasons we find it so hard to stay focused on a task is that we're constantly bombarded with short bursts of information. Adverts, tweets, newsletters, are all artfully designed by marketers and copywriters to succinctly convey the key points in as enticing and stimulating way as possible. Although we might welcome these bite-sized information (most of us being too „time-poor‟ to spend any length of time doing anything anymore), research shows that the more we become used to frequent, short bursts of information, the less able we are to put in the cognitive effort required to process longer or more complex narratives. The result is that when we're required to make that effort, we drift off or simply give up.

Reading a short burst of information or having a two-minute conversation with someone might be far more stimulating than digesting a research paper or really listening to what the other person has to say. But it's rarely as satisfying. As the Harvard research shows, it's when we fully immerse ourselves in a task, be it reading a broadsheet or going out for a meal with someone, that we derive the most satisfaction.

With that in mind, it's important to challenge yourself – and for managers to challenge employees – to do something that requires real concentration. This could be going to an industry seminar or attending a political or environmental debate, or just allowing yourself to really pay attention to your colleagues or partner. Ask yourself “When was the last time I really listened to what someone else had to say before jumping in with my own views or thoughts?”

As with the mindfulness teaching, it's important not to beat yourself up if you struggle to do this at first. The mind is a muscle like any other; if you haven't been exercising it to concentrate on things, it will take a while for you to build up those muscles again.

But I haven’t got time?

This is all very well, you might be thinking, but I haven't got time: there's too much going on in my life to read articles that take brainpower, really listen to what people have to say, or do one thing at a time when I could be doing two or three. You need to step back and ask if the things you're doing are making you happy.

Your diary might be jam-packed as you race from one appointment to the next, but might you be unwittingly investing finite amounts of precious time on people or activities that leave you unhappy? If so, then you're at the thin end of developing a common mental health disorder, such as stress, anxiety or depression, a lack of happiness being the first step.

The reason that as many as one in four of us will develop a mental health problem is that it's very easily done if we don't take proper care of ourselves. A key part of this is stepping back from time to time to look at the bigger picture and get some perspective. Which activities and relationships do you thrive on? Which cause you to become frustrated or stressed? Get a pen out now and write down what you enjoy and would like to do more of, as well as what's become a source of anxiety or misery. Do you actually need to do the tasks that are making you miserable? How can you reorganise your work or life to do more of the things you thrive on (it's much easier to stay in the moment if it's something you enjoy) and less of the things you don't?

From an employer's perspective, it's an incredibly worthwhile exercise to bring employees together to look at what they are and aren't enjoying from an organisational perspective. More often than not it's the simplest things, like the coffee machine not working or issues with parking in the morning that can bring the biggest boost to engagement once addressed.

Where there are bigger organisational issues, like teething problems with a new IT system, overly complicated internal procedures getting in the way of customer service, or the desire for more flexible working, take time out to talk to employees. Helping them identify and tackle what's frustratiing them can pay huge dividends if it results in them enjoying and focusing more on their work.

Top Tips

For those of you that were just scanning, here's the bite-sized bit!

  • Increase your ability to focus by switching off your phone, closing your office door, turning off your email and eliminating other distractions
  • Try to stay in the moment when talking to people by really listening to what they have to say instead of jumping in straight away with your own thoughts or story
  • Challenge yourself to complete a task that requires prolonged concentration, such as reading a broadsheet newspaper, going to an industry seminar or political debate
  • Stop trying to do several tasks at once and concentrate on one thing at a time, you should find you're able to complete it more quickly and effectively as a result
  • Write down what you enjoy doing, what you'd like to do more of and what's making you feel unhappy or frustrated. Can you reorganise yourself to do more of what you enjoy?