Our attention gets no respect

Our attention gets no respect!

Attention series part 2. Read part 1 here.

As leaders, we demonstrate little regard for our own attention. I’m as guilty as anyone.

We allow our focus to be pillaged, stolen by unproductive meetings and diverted by inane email chains. We get drawn into tactical issues others can solve or preoccupied worrying about tomorrow’s problems today. These breaks in concentration are common at all levels of the organization.

A disciplined approach to managing attention and minimizing distractions can spark innovation and increase the firm’s speed to market.

Today’s popular open floor plans are distraction war zones. Double monitors and headphones can’t protect employees from the constant intrusions on their focus.  Stressed by urgency levels and frustrated when falling behind, team members often settle for checking off short-term To Do tasks to survive the day. As a result, they feel less impactful while the firm’s long-term strategies do not get the mindshare required.

So how do we help our team better direct their focus and concentration?

Gauge the allocation of attention


Even the most organized leaders are surprised by how much attention is wasted on activities with nominal business impact.

To assess this issue, have key leaders conduct a time inventory breaking their typical week into 6-8 broad activities and determining the percentage of their time and attention currently allocated to each.

Once completed, conduct the same exercise to create the ideal allocation of leaders’ attention – a best-case scenario for how they would focus their time.

Armed with a clearer picture of the ideal and current reality enables the development of an action plan to better distribute attention to crucial activities in each position of the firm.

Simplify. Do less and execute better.


Up and down the organization, To Do lists are too long. Talented people can do almost anything, but they can’t do everything. At one client, the favorite phrase, “I got it.” created an expectation that employees should never say “No.” A seasoned executive told me, “I spend 95% of my day doing and almost no time thinking.”

Learning to say “No” starts by identifying what is truly essential, activities vital to achieving the company’s mission.

Each of us has a Tactical box of tasks and a box of Strategic activities. Our Tactical boxes are stuffed with routine items we clearly understand and are practiced at executing. Meanwhile, our Strategic box is mostly barren with only a handful of hastily flushed-out notions. Projects in the Strategic box are more engaging and impactful but inherently risky with a higher chance of failure. Given this dynamic, it’s not surprising we spend too much time in the safer Tactical box, stuck in the weeds “doing” rather than “thinking”.

To increase the effectiveness of each employee, enable and encourage them to say “No” to the bottom of the Tactical list. With less to complete, the quality of work on the remaining activities will improve. Direct more attention to the Strategic Box.  Focus the organization on the big ideas such as new products, process improvements, collaboration advances, developing top talent or broadening professional capabilities.

With so much of an organization’s attention squandered on low impact activities, there is room for sizeable productivity and performance gains. Creating a culture, which is intentional about focus and wary of distractions, can enable the level of business growth and professional development all leaders seek.

Dave Smith is an Associate with Impact Americas. He's an experienced executive coach and organizational strategist. He provides counsel on progressive organizational methods which spawn innovation and place customer experience at the center of the firm.