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Is anyone still paying attention?

Photo by Hugh Han on Unsplash

At a time when hybrid work has become a new reality, paying attention to the task we have at hand or the person in front of us, seems more challenging than ever. In a world of increasing distractions and interruptions with endless flows of emails, texts, calls, meetings and deadlines, it seems that heavy multitasking and high stress are inevitable. This seems to be the new reality at work, despite its obvious high costs in productivity and wellbeing. But… does it need to be this way?

Amongst the many changes brought about by the pandemic, our attention seems to be under an even bigger siege. According to recent data from Microsoft regarding the use of MS Teams, after the pandemic the number of monthly meetings has increased 153%, while the time spent in these meetings has skyrocketed 252%. At the same time – and probably because of it – 47% of employees are now determined to place their personal lives ahead of their work lives.[1]

However, it’s not always easy to begin this transformation. It’s in this context that the scientific knowledge gathered in the last few years about the impact of mind training – and specially, attention training – becomes particularly useful. This knowledge has been transforming substantially the way knowledge workers at the some of the world’s most forward-looking organizations, experience their work. In the words of IMD Professor Ben Bryant, these practices allow executives to “situate themselves calmly in the eye of the hurricane, where they are able to tap into the clarity and creativity that is necessary to ensure wisdom in decision-making and focused, authentic leadership”.[2]

Although organizations have a critical role in creating and promoting conditions to have their workforces thrive at work, here are 3 tips to help you start building a better work experience for yourself, right away:

1. Start by managing your autonomic nervous system. With the levels of demands we face daily, it’s easy for our nervous system to go off balance, preparing to protect us in the face of challenging emails, as if our own immediate survival was at stake (have you ever felt a pounding heart while checking emails?) This physiological response not only damages our health, but also our capacity to think clearly and decide effectively.

-> During your day have frequent breaks so you can investigate your experience. Ask yourself, “What thoughts are going through my mind?” or “What sensations am I noticing in my body?”. Deepening this self-awareness will help you notice these imbalances early on and allow you to manage them. In those moments, invite your attention to rest on your abdomen for a few breaths, noticing how the abdomen extends with each inhalation… and contracts with each exhalation. Doing so will activate your parasympathetic nervous system and generate a sense of calm (you can try it right now – stop reading this article, set up a timer and follow these instructions for 1 min; then, notice their impact on your body and mind).

2. Ensure you spend some time every day in ‘deep work’ mode. It sometimes seems we’re capable of paying attention to more than one thing at a time. We think we can be in a meeting while checking our emails, or having a conversation with someone while we type a message. But we can’t really pay attention to two things at the same time. The multitasking we sometimes talk about is actually switch tasking, meaning a quick shifting of attention between two different tasks. In one moment we’re talking with someone, and in the next moment we’re in our inbox, only to be back at the conversation a moment later. But at work, research after research study has found that when we try to multitask, we become “masters of everything that is irrelevant, while we let ourselves be distracted by anything.” [3] Constantly shifting our attention from one object to another not only makes us slower, but also less creative, more tired, and more susceptible to higher stress and lower productivity. [4]

-> To work with more focus on a daily basis, ensure you have every day at least one slot of deep work (ideally two, preferably more). Start by communicating ahead of time with your team and close colleagues you’re taking some time every day for deep work, and that you will only be available through one means of communication, for high stakes messages that need to be addressed immediately (think: there’s a fire!). Then, plan some time to check messages after you finish your deep work, so you can go through it calmly and knowing you’ll soon be again updated on everything that’s happened. Lastly, disconnect fully and bring the full power of your focus to your day’s most challenging task. If you haven’t tried this recently, you’ll be amazed by how much you can do in a short period of time.

3. Train your mind. Although the last one, this is probably the most important suggestion. It’s quite possible you’re familiar with some of the ideas above, and that you might even have already tried to implement them. But in the absence of a mind that is both calm and focused, any sustained change is difficult.

-> Experiment with dedicating 10-15 min / day to cultivating a mind that is more present, calm and open. Doing so will help you develop freedom of choice and the capacity to go through your day with intentionality. And don’t think that because these ideas are simple, they won’t work. Actually, it’s only the simple ideas we actually implement, that lead to long term change. Remember that “a big change never happens with big changes”, but only with small changes sustained over time.

If you want to know more about how to work with your mind more effectively to build a new type of experience at work, specially knowing we will be spending some 40.000 hours at work in our lifetime, drop me a line!

[1] Microsoft 2022 Work Trend Index; Feb/Mar-2020 vs. Feb/Mar-2022

[2] Bryant, Ben and Wildi, Jeanny “Leadership Style: Business And Leadership In China: Mindfulness: The Quiet in the Eye of the Storm”, Leadership Style, pp. 9-15 (2020)

[3] E. Ophir, C. Nass, and A. D. Wagner, “Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106 (2009): 15583–15587.

[4] Hougaard, Rasmus and Carter, Jacqueline, “The Mind of the Leader: How to Lead Yourself, Your People, and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results”, HBR Press, 2018


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