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Are You Really Paying Attention? The Importance of Being Present

As you read this, what are you thinking? Are you really concentrating on this material, or does your mind drift toward what you have to do next?
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When I was seven I got slapped. Miss Devlin, my second grade teacher, "lost it" after I stopped paying attention one too many times. Her rebuke and a hard left hand made quite an impression. Now, "pay attention!" still evokes memories of that moment when she had my full attention.

As you read this, what are you thinking? Are you really concentrating on this material, or does your mind drift toward what you have to do next? Let's face it, we are usually multitasking, distracted and feeling pulled away from whatever we are doing -- reading, listening, watching, eating, even loving.

One of the greatest lessons of my life is the importance of really paying attention. Things change and we grow when we decide (and it is a choice) to pay attention -- to our thinking, to what people are sharing with us, to what we are doing in the moment, to life around us. Few of us really listen to anyone, We are too busy thinking of the answer they need even before they finish asking us their question. Paying attention against the backdrop of media noise and digital distractions, all while we feel like "the enraged and the exhausted," as Peggy Noonan so aptly describes us, is very challenging.

In our leadership practice we work to help leaders understand the power of attention and intention. No matter what you are trying to dream, build or realize, you need to state your intentions clearly. By focusing your intentions and sharing them, you nurture the result. It's also critical to set clear and compelling personal context for any change in the organization's attention. Then, real work is required to socialize the messages of what, when and why (people just don't remember), and then focus, through courageous, persistent conversations, programs, plans and values-based work to link both the personal and the collective attention to the new intention.

There is a twin energy at work here, each with its own pull and push, that leaders, indeed all of us, can learn and master. It's essential if we are serious about making lasting changes in our life!

Absent a clear connection between our intentions (that "vision" thing) and where we place and sustain our attention, plans collapse, intentions lapse and we waste so much energy. Our CEO clients understand this, and we work with them to link intention and attention through specific programs, timely counsel and often efforts at large-scale cultural "reform." The caution we share with them is that you become your attention; you become that to which you attend. Focus is powerful, so be careful about the focus of your attention.

Each day we have reminders of how important it is to align our intentions and where we focus our attention, our efforts, our hard work. And when we do, we discover rewards in surprising corners.

To me, one of the year's best books is "Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas, and Found Happiness" (Atlas, 2010), by Dominique Browning. Browning was editor of "House and Garden," which was abruptly closed down by Condé Nast, where, it is rumored, backstabbing was elevated to an art form, a sort of "elaborate corporate kabuki." With her children leaving home and a long relationship ending, the foundation of her well-ordered, successful life was suddenly in peril. Her driven, purpose-filled days vanished.

Her recovery is funny, unabashedly self-deprecating, and rich with stunning examples of shifting her attention. In her "leftover years," as she describes the years when "we're all left over from one failed relationship or another," she finds clarity in cleaning out the clutter of her house, ending a sagging relationship, and focusing her attention on designing and building a home deep in nature.

She writes:

Slow Love means engaging with the world in a deeper, more meaningful way, learning to appreciate the beauty of everyday moments, and taking time to share them with one another -- in the midst of our busy, productive lives. It's a place to continue the conversation, and to share thoughts about how to find those slow love moments daily.

To me, "Slow Love" is all about attention, and through shifts in our attention, realizing more of life's fleeting moments.

In my daily practice of writing, my feelings cry out for attention. When I first discovered C.S. Lewis decades ago, he described in "Surprised by Joy" that when he looked inside himself, he discovered "a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds." Writing means sitting still, paying attention to what nudges you to come awake. It's also about telling the truth, which means stripping away artifice and the mask of titles and experience. You feel exposed. I do.

Learning how to extend your attention means surrendering "knowing" all the information. Instead, worry about managing your attention, which writer Clay Johnson suggests is "a form of endurance athleticism." It requires practice and training, like running a marathon. There's lot of new brain science, including the work on neuroplasticity, or how the brain changes its organization over time to understand new experiences, that confirms that developing and sustaining our attention is a new sort of fitness.

I meditate. Others do yoga or take long morning runs. Some swim and others sit and surrender to a sunrise. It means unplugging and turning down the volume of life. But with more attention comes the promise of aligning yourself ever more to your intentions, to the goals you have set for yourself, and the hope for finally realizing what you have hoped for yourself.

E.L Doctorow wrote that "writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." You don't have to know the road ahead, you just need to see out two or three feet ahead of you. Much of life is lived with the same lack of clarity, so it makes paying attention an essential way to get anywhere, and sometimes, to arrive alive.

There is ecstasy in paying attention. The poet Mary Oliver reminds us "Such beauty as the earth offers must hold great meaning" -- from dappled pools of sunlight to the rallying sounds of a new season, to smelling a fall morning's ripeness, so unlike the urgency of May, or the dusty heat of August. When you pay attention to a world altering our experience in the slow, seductive seconds of awareness, you become more alive. And in your world.

Are you really paying attention?