Attention in the midst of distraction

For every person who was relieved to see the end of lockdown, I’ve met one who misses it. And this makes complete sense to me. Because, shocking though the circumstances were, lockdown provided a time of relative certainty for many of us. Clear dos and don’ts to guide our actions and decisions. Time and space to take stock of our lives, our work, our purpose and our priorities. It’s a joy to see our communities beginning to bustle, and it’s reassuring to see companies striving towards business as usual, but for many the easing of lockdown has brought new anxieties, confusions and distractions.

We’re trying to establish the ‘new normal’ within shifting parameters. If you’re responsible for the work, learning and wellbeing of others you’ve been on overload. You’ve spent months scrutinising guidance and implementing detailed health and safety measures. And you face many months managing multiple contingencies, preparing for unknown scenarios. Some of us feel anxious and fearful. Some feel angry. Some are hopeful. Some dejected. All of us feel distracted.

Are we adapting or reacting?

I recently celebrated the flexibility that we’ve all developed in recent months. When we embrace new levels of problem solving, initiative and independent thinking – in ourselves and those we lead – we lay the foundations for long-term resilience. But spotting the difference between flexibility and reactivity, when we’ve acclimatised ourselves to distraction and uncertainty, demands a heightened level of awareness.

Are we adapting to what’s important? Or simply reacting to what feels urgent right now?

Are we flexing our approach to accommodate new needs? Or pivoting our purpose in a panic?

Have we become habitually reactive – even impulsive – as uncertainty amplifies our everyday distractions?

As leaders, are we doing what we can to shield our team members from unnecessary distraction?

Without awareness, an important demand and a common distraction can feel the same. Without focus, being flexible and being impulsive can look the same. But one keeps us on track and the other takes us off in a spin. Early into lockdown I shared how leaders can create a climate of trust and safety when they demonstrate self-control and focus. It’s hard, with so much uncertainty still ahead of us, but right now we owe our focused attention to ourselves and those we work with.

Are we following the right path or a familiar one?

What do we typically do when we’re overwhelmed with distractions? The temptation is to hunker down. To find our zone of comfort and remain firmly within it. To grab hold of any clarity we can, even if it describes the past better than the future. To apply our functional capabilities, even if we need to change tack. To stick with our familiar assumptions and habits, even if they prevent us from experimenting with liberating alternatives.

Without awareness, familiarity feels like certainty. Without focus, a clear path looks like the right path. Our sense of purpose helps us spot the difference. Government guidance, trends and data may inform our leadership decisions, but they can’t provide the focus we need to generate and share. That comes from within – from our purpose, our intentions, our insights. American author Saul Bellow captured this beautifully in his description of the art of fiction writing:

“I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.” (Conversations with Saul Bellow, 1967.)

Bellow’s words help us picture the immense gift we can offer right now when we perform the art of leadership thoughtfully, steadily and with our full attention.

Are we generating stillness as well as momentum?

As restrictions ease, the distractions are increasing. We may not be able to remove them, but it’s time to notice them for what they are.

Last year – when a potential pandemic was in the minds of our scientists and public health experts, but far from ours – I shared my belief that time is one of the greatest gifts we can offer as leaders. Now I want to invite you to reflect on how you use your time. What can you generate – for yourself and others – when you consciously create space and time by holding distractions at arm’s length? And how can you achieve this?

Here are some suggestions, distilled from the leaders I’m working with right now:

Catch yourself when you’re losing focus. Notice what it feels like. Then notice how it feels to regain your focus. What helps you? What tips can you share?

Tune in to your team members’ experiences. Take the time to learn about their very different working day. How are they feeling right now? How do you want them to feel?

Create focus for your team members. Schedule times when you can give each person your full attention. Give them moments in which they can experience slower, more focused thinking.

Take time to reflect as a team. In the rush to return to ‘normal’, make space to talk about how abnormal life has become, and what you’re all learning from it.

Remind your team of its vision. Ask questions that focus your team on its purpose and impact: Where are we going? How are we getting there? What’s keeping us on track? How do we want to feel along the way? 

Being a leader is a profound responsibility. And it is in times of crisis, confusion and distraction that you can make your most profound contribution to those you lead by holding and sharing your focused attention.

Thanks for reading!

If you’ve enjoyed this article, or it’s helped you regain a sense of focus, I’d love to hear from you. If you think it can help others lead with attention and focus, please pass it on.

If you want to take time to learn more about listening to encourage others’ focused thinking, come along to our next Thinking Partnership Retreat in September or our Time to Think Foundation Programme in October.

Connect with me on LinkedIn or simply get in touch with me.

Photo by Marianne Bos on Unsplash

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