In prior blogs, I’ve provided a working definition of self-coaching and suggested that this process/practice can help drive higher levels of employee engagement and retention.
Let’s turn our attention to attention, a core ingredient of self-coaching. We think we know what attention is, but my experience is that there is MUCH more underneath the surface.
This blog is about becoming more aware of our attention. In a future blog we will explore ideas for actually improving our ability to control it. When I was first introduced to a deeper dive on attention, it seemed, and in many ways was, simplistic. And it has also been profound.
Our attention has a huge impact on how we ‘show up’; how we experience the world; how we navigate our lives.
Given the importance of attention, many of us spend way too little time learning about it. So, let’s see if we might be able get underneath the surface of attention, which is where most of us operate, and learn a bit more about it, shall we?
The concepts below are based on the work of Gary Sherman. I’ve met Gary numerous times and have attended workshops co-led by him and his wife, Ellen Miller. I am grateful to Gary for his graciousness in allowing me to use his content.
What is Attention?
Attention is one of those things that we all understand, and yet it can be somewhat difficult to articulate. Here are a few definitions:
- Wikipedia – The behavioral and cognitive process of selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment while ignoring other things. Has also been referred to as the allocation of processing resources.
- Merriam-Webster: 1a: the act or state of applying the mind to something.
- Dictionary.com: the act or faculty of attending, especially by directing the mind to an object.
Gary Sherman also says that attention is “…the active dynamic that determines what we perceive at any given moment.” Not to get too philosophical, but I like that this suggests that what’s outside of our attention doesn’t really exist for us…it’s not part of our reality in that moment.
Rick Hanson, a psychologist who has written and taught about the essential inner skills of personal well-being and personal growth, notes that attention is “…a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner.” The vacuum cleaner idea is important as pertains to neuroplasticity, the fact that our brains are malleable and we create new neural pathways all the time. The longer we hold something in our attention, the more it is ‘sinking in’ into the brain.
Both of these thought leaders, and many others, see the ability to control one’s attention as a core fundamental life skill.
Let’s Play With Our Attention
I welcome you to play along here as I offer you a chance to experience your attention in a new way. This will be much more powerful / insightful for you if you do these activities.
Activity 1 – Following Our Attention
I invite you to get comfortable wherever you are. This can be done sitting at your desk, sitting/standing on the bus/train, lying in your bed or on the ground, wherever you are.
For 30 seconds, with your eyes open, simply ‘follow’ your attention. Don’t try to control it, just let it go and follow it. If you are like me, you’ll want to set a timer so you know when you’ve done exactly 30 seconds. You may also be comfortable just ‘winging it’ until you feel like you’ve put in an ok amount of time.
Go ahead…30 seconds…follow your attention.
Welcome back. What did you experience? How did that feel? For some of you, it may be the first time you’ve ever paid attention to your attention…which can be a bit weird.
I’m assuming you noticed that your attention is on the move. It is constantly moving, bouncing from one thing to another. And if you followed the instructions and didn’t try to control it, you noticed that your attention moves without you.
Our attention is always moving. And it moves with or without our conscious involvement.
We spend a significant amount of our waking hours on autopilot, not in control of our attention. This idea fascinated me when I first became aware of it.
Here’s another question for you. Where did your attention ‘land’ during that 30 seconds? Since I have no idea where you are doing this, I can’t speculate exactly where it went. However, I can tell you conceptually where it went. It went to and through three different ‘locations.’
- Location 1 – Your Body: Attention can focus on the sensations of your body. Feeling happy or sad, feeling your heart beat, feeling your breath in your abdomen or nostrils, feeling your feet on the floor, etc.
- Location 2 – The World: Attention can be in the world as experienced by you directly through your five senses. You can be focused on something you see, hear, smell, touch, or taste.
- Location 3 – Your Mind: Attention can focus on your thoughts. ‘What am I having for dinner tonight?’ ‘I can’t believe I said that thing I said at the team meeting yesterday.’ Etc..
You can think of these three locations as the ‘landscape’ or the ‘geography’ of attention.
Activity 2 – Labeling Where it Lands
Ok, I invite you to again get comfortable wherever you are.
As with activity 1, let’s follow your attention for another 30 seconds with your eyes open. This time when it ‘lands’ someplace, quickly mentally label the location (Body, World, Mind) where it has landed.
For example (you may be able to guess that I’m writing this in a city): You might hear a siren going by and in that moment you would label your attention as being in the ‘World.’
You may notice yourself thinking ‘That sounds like an ambulance,’ which you label as ‘Mind.’ You notice that your heart begins to beat faster (‘Body’) which you attribute to a recent experience where a friend was in an accident (‘Mind’).
Go ahead…30 seconds…follow your attention and label where it lands.
Welcome back (again). What did you experience? How did that feel?
By starting to label where your attention lands, you are inserting conscious action into the process. Using the three locations within the geography of attention opens up a new ability to locate ourselves mentally. We all know how to answer the question “Where are you?” based on our physical location.
This gives us an ability to answer the question “Where are you?” mentally. We’ve all been in meetings with people who were physically present but were totally somewhere else mentally.
We can locate our attention.
Activity 3 – Intentionally Moving it Around
Ok, round 3.
You’ve experienced first hand, or witnessed, or you can try to imagine, the joy of floating down a stream on an inner tube. After a certain distance, hopping out of the stream, running back to the start point, and jumping in to do it all over again (and again and again).
In the first activity we simply floated down the stream of our attention, casually noticing the landscape as it went by.
In the second activity, we started over at the top of the stream and this time inserted some conscious control into the mix and paid attention to and labeled the landscape as it went by. If we can’t control where the river’s taking us, we can at least name the landscape that the river flows through as a way of getting familiar with where we visit in ourselves on a regular basis.
In this third activity, let’s step back into the stream with more of a rudder, so we can begin to take control of the direction our attention takes.
Now I realize this may be difficult to do on your own. I’m used to leading groups through this activity so I can call out the different locations. Heck, give it a try and see what happens.
This time we are going to direct our attention as opposed to following it. 45 seconds will be more effective than 30 seconds for this one. You’ll want to pick one of the three locations and focus your attention there. After seven or eight seconds, choose another location and shift your focus there. Shift your attention four or five times in total.
When you are focused on your Body, choose one bodily sensation to focus on (your breath, your butt on the seat, your feet on the floor, etc..) until you are shifting to the next location.
When you are focused on your World, choose one of your senses to focus on (something you see, hear, etc…) until you are shifting to the next location.
When you are focused on your Mind, go up into your thoughts and run free.
Alright, go ahead and focus your attention on one location (Body, World, Mind) and then move it to another location (Body, World, Mind) every 7 or 8 seconds, a total of four or five times.
Welcome back (again). What did you experience? How did that feel?
While I don’t know how this works doing it on your own, it’s typical in my experience with a group that they find this hard to do. Even for a short timeframe, it can be difficult to hold our attention on one thing. The point, however, is that even though it’s difficult it can be done.
We are able to control our attention…and it’s not easy. Like going to the gym to build body muscle, we need to exercise our attention to strengthen it.
If you are interested in having a guided audio experience of these and many other attention activities, check out Gary Sherman’s free audio library on this topic. There are 15 different topics of roughly 10-minutes each.
Awareness of Attention – Summary
- Our attention is on the move – with or without us.
- Our attention moves in and through the landscape / geography of Body (feelings and sensations), World (through our five senses) and Mind (thoughts).
- We can locate our attention in this landscape.
- We can control our attention.
- Controlling our attention is not easy and takes practice (like going to the gym to build body muscles).
So there you go. Hopefully this has given you some new insights on your awareness of your attention. I plan to share more information on learning to better control your attention in a future post.
I LOVE this quote (below) about attention from a TEDx talk given by Jeremy Hunter (an associate professor at the Peter F. Drucker Graduate School of Management at Claremont Graduate University) in 2013:
“As a society, we don’t pay enough attention to attention; we don’t take care of it, preserve it, grow it. We need to take care of attention. Quality of attention is quality of life, quality of relationship, quality of work. Attention is the secret ingredient that connects us to ourselves and others.”
I believe so strongly in the value of attention that I’ve built a training program around it.
Coach Your Self Up Development Program
Helping employees improve their ability to pay attention is one core pillar of my new ‘Coach Your Self Up’ training program that teaches self-coaching skills.
While it’s still early, I’ve delivered the program a number of times and the participant feedback has been great. For example, 95%(!) of participants to date have expressed an intention to use self-coaching skills throughout their careers.
I’m excited as this underlines the powerful impact this program can have in helping employees unlock potential and improve their effectiveness at work; and more broadly in other aspects of their lives.
Don’t hesitate to reach out if you’d like to discuss any aspect of the self-coaching topic.
More on Self-Coaching to Come
I have lots more to share about self-coaching and how it can help organizations address common business challenges. I’ll share that in future posts. Thanks for reading and stay tuned…