Pay Attention

Multitasking seems to have become endemic. As businesspeople we do not seem to feel productive if we are not doing several things at once. I was at a $100 million-decision meeting not long ago where half of the participants brought papers to sort, three announced they were leaving early and everyone had their BlackBerry working overtime. Unfortunately, if we are doing a lot of things at once, it means that we are not bringing our best effort or our fullest capability to any of those tasks — even when they need and deserve it.

Take a lesson from artists, surgeons, writers and athletes. Most use specially designed personal rituals to become fully present mentally, physically and emotionally before going to work. Do not be put off by the term ritual. Not all rituals require high ceilings, incense, candles or chanting. Anything that helps us to change our state of consciousness is a ritual. Watch Tiger Woods on the course, in his pre-shot routine and at address, and you get the idea. What do you suppose your organization’s execution would look like if employees brought that level of concentration to work every day? What about your own performance?

In “The Power of Full Engagement,” Jim Loehr and Tony Schwart discuss leadership and the importance of being fully present. Their research shows very close correlation between the behaviors and attitudes of the best athletes and the most effective corporate leaders, including rituals to get present and ready and regular time to recharge and refresh.

Many business leaders described rituals for checking out from work. Some talked about changing clothes or turning off the mobile phone. One executive indicated that he and his family knew that he was fully home when he removed his pens and keys from his jacket pocket and placed them on the dresser.

The most effective leaders also have a specific process they use to shift their attention to being fully present for the day’s work. That boundary in time is the moment in which we become fully prepared to be who our businesses need us to be. It ranges from “kissing my husband and kids goodbye in the morning” to “tightening my tie in the car mirror in the garage.” One executive I interviewed who is the CFO of a large Arkansas employer makes it a point to take his morning coffee out on a terrace where he can spend at least three minutes alone simply staring at the river. “During this time, I am not thinking of the things I must do, but of the conversations that we must have today. When I am done, I take a couple of deep breaths and I know I am at work.”

Ask yourself what impact you might have if you identified those meetings, activities, tasks or processes that would benefit from your fullest attention. Can you imagine how your work, and the experience of those who work with you, would be different if you (and they) were fully present and undistracted for key conversations during your day? Ask yourself what you may be missing by spreading your attention too thin.

Better yet, try this experiment. Pick one important meeting or event in your day each day. Plan to start that event in advance by designing a personal ritual. It might be as simple as cleaning everything else off the top of your desk. When the time comes, eliminate all distractions in the room (that means no BlackBerry or other papers) and insist that all participants prepare similarly. You may discover a lot of creative power and critical thinking that have been missing. And let’s face it: Unless someone is bleeding or something is on fire, there is very little that will come to you on your BlackBerry that cannot wait for an hour.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, November 28, 2005.