A leader’s most precious resource is not their time. It’s their focused attention. Time merely passes, while focused attention makes things happen. When we’re able to gather and direct our attention toward a particular task or interaction, we can have a significant impact in a minimal amount of time. But when we’re unable to bring our attention to bear on the work at hand, all the time in the world is insufficient. So what are the implications of this for leaders?

Leaders must recognize that it’s essential to work at enhancing their ability to direct their attention and minimize unhelpful distractions, and one of the most important steps in this process is managing emotions. Psychologist Victor Johnston describes emotions as “discriminant hedonic amplifiers,” meaning that they boost various signals in our mental landscape, drawing our attention toward certain issues and events and away from others. In other words, emotions are attention magnets.

Consequently, awareness and regulation of our emotions are central to the productive use of our attention. Here are some practical steps leaders can take.

Build Capacity. We can expand our attentive capacity through a commitment to practices such as meditation, journaling, time in nature, regular physical activity, and good sleep hygiene. All of these activities support our ability to direct our focus, filter out distractions, and manage our emotions, and we can often realize their benefits with a modest investment of time. Recent research indicates that meditating for just a few minutes a day, spending just one hour a week in nature, or jotting down a few reflective notes in the evening has a noticeable impact on well-being. My experience as a coach suggests that these benefits extend to leaders’ effectiveness. The key is a consistent commitment to each daily or weekly practice.

While these activities are often enjoyable in themselves, they aren’t indulgences–they’re investments in our ability to operate at peak effectiveness. High-performing professionals often enjoy success early in their careers by virtue of their ability to forego activities like this–they cut back on sleep or go without exercise for extended periods of time. But while those sacrifices temporarily expand our capacity for throughput, they actually diminish our capacity for focused attention. And while more senior leaders like my clients continue to work hard, what allows them to add value isn’t the extra hours spent working, but rather the quality of their focused attention while they’re at work.

Plug Leaks. Attention is finite, and our ability to focus in the moment is severely limited. Because distractions can fatally undermine effective leadership, it’s critical to avoid “attention leaks.” As I wrote a few months ago, “The functions on our phones and other devices that beep, blink and thrust red numbers in our faces are designed to capture our attention and create a sense of urgency… But how often are any of these interruptions truly urgent? Almost never. Turn them off.”

Another attention-destroying practice is what we’ve come to call “multi-tasking,” an utterly misnamed concept. While insignificant tasks requiring minimal cognitive effort can be performed in parallel, the truly meaningful work through which most leaders add value–one-on-one conversations, facilitation or decision-making in meetings, and creative thought and ideation–require a much more intense level of focus. Multi-tasking in those environments inevitably results in significant inefficiencies as we switch contexts and lose focus before returning to a deeper level of thought.

Create Space. Leaders typically face intense demands on their time (in part because everyone wants their attention), and if they’re not careful they can find themselves booked nonstop for days on end. It’s important to maintain some open space in the calendar, on a weekly or even daily basis, which allows for more creative thinking and helps replenish our stores of attention.

This inevitably involves disappointing people, all of whom believe their issue is worthy of the leader’s time, but productive leaders realize that they can’t meet all of these requests and must ignore many of them. Here leaders require help from their senior team, family, and friends, and–perhaps most importantly–their executive assistants. People in these roles are uniquely positioned to help leaders protect open space on their calendars, and they’re uniquely positioned to undermine that process if they don’t understand this responsibility.

One final thought: If you’re a leader sitting in a meeting that’s not worth your focused attention, then you’re serving a theatrical function. Sometimes this makes sense. There’s a place for organizational theater. But more often the whole organization is suffering because your most precious resource is being wasted. Let the people who organized the meeting know that you’ll attend in the future when you’re needed, excuse yourself, and get on with your day. And if it’s your meeting, then you may well be wasting everyone’s time and attention–they may all be there in a theatrical function because they’re deferring to your authority. Have a candid conversation with a trusted ally, and get some feedback on the utility of your meetings.

Thanks to Chris Oestereich for a timely reminder on the importance of open space.

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