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August 17, 2020

Attention and Focus – #MTtalk Roundup

Midgie Thompson


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Imagine two competitors at the start of a race. On the outside, they appear equally matched and ready to race. But their inner thoughts paint two very different pictures.

One competitor’s mind is full of doubts and uncertainty. They are preoccupied with their fears of what lies ahead. All these distracting thoughts will almost certainly damage their performance.

In contrast, the other athlete is calm, focused and ready to go. Rather than dwelling on the "what if," they have chosen to focus on the task at hand. They know that they are ready and they are prepared to give it their best shot. They will likely perform better because they have a clear mind, free of distractions.

The difference between the two individuals is where they choose to direct their attention. Thankfully, attention is a habit that anyone can adopt. The key is to select which thoughts you listen to and which ones you disregard. You can also regularly stop and ask yourself, "what am I paying attention to right now and is it helping or hindering me?"

"Starve your distractions. Feed your focus."


Focus on the Sunny Side

During the past few months, with all the stress, fear and worry caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, I have often struggled to concentrate. No matter how many strategies I put in place to avoid distractions, I couldn’t seem to get work done. No amount of asking myself "does it help or hinder?" was effective when I couldn’t drown out the worries in my mind.

So, rather than beat myself up for lacking focus, I acknowledged that we are living in exceptional circumstances. When times have been tough, I have chosen to pay attention to what is good in my life and be grateful for the simple things. I have chosen to focus on what I can control. This shift in attention helps me to move forward in a more positive and productive manner. It is progress, even if it isn’t perfection!

Attention and Focus

During our #MTtalk Twitter chat last Friday, we talked about attention and focus in a world of distractions. Here are the questions we asked and some of your most insightful responses:

Q1. What do you need to pay attention to – and how easy is that?

@_TomGReid Sustained leaders remain situationally aware. You notice everything and can immediately assess whether it is critical or noise-level. You pay attention to everything, but prioritize those that can move the needle.

@PG_pmp One needs to have focus and a "to do" attitude... it is easy if you love your work.

Q2. Do you think technology causes us to overuse our attention span? Why?

@WonderPix Tech can certainly help us tax our attention span... but even without it, our brains can quickly bounce back and forth between things.

@lg217 It can, depending on how the technology is used. Most people use technology to do certain tasks. Others use it as a distractor. It depends on the use.

Q3. How do you know if others are paying attention? What do you feel?

@TheCraigKaye Eye contact, paraverbals, body language, professional curiosity, inquisitive questions, smiles and nods, exploration.

@MaryEllenGrom When others pay attention you feel relevant, respected and valued.

Q4. What or who distracts you the most?

@Midgie_MT The accessibility of social media distracts me. Rather than simply pause, look out the window and then get back to what I was doing, it's easy to hop onto social media for that break and then find I've spent way too long there!

@VardhanPande It is my inner chatter which distracts me the most.

Q5. How do attention management and time management differ?

@MicheleDD_MT Attention is a combination of behaviors: mindfulness, presence, focus, flow. Time management is a set of tools.

@lsmurthy99 While similar to time management, attention management changes the focus of your time to how you are engaging.

Q6. How can you shift your attention between tasks without losing focus?

@aamir9769 Quite difficult until you're smart enough having skills to handle it. Keep a notepad, write down where you left off and what you were doing, and then move onto another task to carry out. Don't do 10 tasks at the same time, we are not robots. Accept only what you are able to digest.

@ColfaxInsurance Have relating tasks back-to-back so when you do switch it doesn't derail your productivity and you can continue working smoothly.

Q7. What role does self-discipline play in your ability to focus?

@JKatzaman Citing lack of discipline is just an excuse to give yourself a pass from responsibility.

@PmTwee Don’t know it is self-discipline or not, firm expectation should enable one’s ability to focus.  

Q8. What's your strategy for dealing with distractions?

@jasonbrewster My approaches to dealing with distractions: 1) Self compassion - we're human. It happens; 2) headphones in when I need focus time on a task; 3) contract about your response times to different messaging types - email I’ll reply in a few days, messages same day.

@letusthink2 Do not multi-task...that becomes your biggest distraction. Focus on one task at a time.

Q9. What/who should you pay less attention to/focus on less?

@saikatsaha I should pay less attention to anything that is not part of my present moment. Everything apart from this tweet chat is less worthy of my attention presently.

@Yolande_MT  Don't focus on what you don't want - you'll get more of it.

Q10. What could you achieve if you could focus on the right things?

@DhongdeSupriya Could identify first what are those right things, and then enjoy the focus.

@carriemaslen What a great question to print out and put on my monitor as a constant reminder!

To read all the tweets, have a look at the Wakelet collection of this chat over here.

Coming Up

Many people find it difficult to pay attention to what's important NOW. However, circumstances sometimes force us to do it. For our next #MTtalk, we're going to discuss salvaging your career after COVID-19.

In our poll this week, we'd like to know what worries you most when you think about salvaging or re-building your career? To see the poll and cast your vote, please click here.


In the meantime, here are some resources relating to attention and focus that we discussed on Friday. Note: some of the resources below may only be available in full to members of the Mind Tools Club.

Minimizing Distractions

In Flow

Managing a Person With ADHD

Effective Scheduling

How to Get More Done in Less Time

Is This a Morning Task?


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