Attentional Intelligence – A limited resource

Attentional Intelligence

Attentional Intelligence – A limited resource

“Our technologies are racing ahead but many of our skills and organisations are lagging behind”.

‘Attention is a resource’ and perhaps more critical today to understand as 70% of the workforce becomes a remote or mobile workforce working from home.

Attentional Intelligence is a term coined by Linda Ray to describe “an intelligence that, when highly developed, allows you to effortlessly but ‘mindfully’ notice where your attention is at any moment and to intentionally choose where you want it to be” (Linda Ray 2012).

Linda explains that the concept of “attention” should be considered as a resource with limits and what this might mean for decision-making and problem-solving. For example we have a limited amount of “focused attention” to give in any day. Due to our brains being quite lazy, it cannot be powered on all the time, so it takes shortcuts through the day to make faster and quicker decisions. The amount of “brain effort” it takes to actually make decisions is significant but limited. So we need to look at how we are focusing our attention to ensure that our brains and our attention are working at optimal capacity. This will assist with emotional regulation, productivity, team cohesion, and psychological safety.

Attentional intelligence is a skillset we need to acknowledge and find ways to enable our employees and our children to leverage to make better decisions and increase productivity.

Attentional Intelligence for Leaders

To lead effectively, we need to find ways to regulate our thoughts and behaviours that help us maintain psychologically safe workplaces and to enable self-care. Attentional intelligence is going to be a skill set that will help you remain calm, assist with more effective decision making, manage your stress and remain productive whilst being challenged with distractions and disruption.

Attentional Intelligence – enables better decision making

If you have an exhausted brain you don’t make good decisions, can’t innovate or find solutions to challenges and inevitably means you may miss important cues from your interactions with others.  Attentional Intelligence – enables learning We are more likely to take in information and form long term memories if we are kind to our brains and treat our attention as a limited resource. Chunking our learning and study into 25min periods. Writing down as much as we can. Hydrating regularly, participating in bursts of exercise, eating well. Scheduling our “hard and difficult tasks” at the right time. I always wondered why maths and science were first thing in the morning.

Attentional Intelligence – supports transformation during uncertain times

Its normal for us to all look for answers to questions we have that we do not feel are being answered correctly or answers that do not give us any sense of security. But we tend to “fill in” those gaps with false facts just so that things make sense. Learning and practicing attentional intelligence will help you focus your attention on the things you can control and highlight the areas that do provide you with certainty.

A new level of interruption

Our brains are rewarded with novelty which is why so many of us are easily distracted by our phones, our social media, the news alert that pops up or the links within articles that takes us away from our main focus. It is very easy to get distracted and waste our most productive time of the day for “brain work or deep work”.   So, with digital technology already challenging our ability to be productive, working from home surrounded by children and loved ones takes this to a whole new level.

Deep work is a phrase that has been coined by the author Cal Newport. It is the ability to focus without distraction on cognitively demanding tasks. For me, cognitively demanding task are things are marketing strategy documents, customer journey maps, and creating writing. Newport suggests a couple of strategies to accelerate deep thought and improve productivity which may help those who are currently working from home, or those who are left at work and for our children who are struggling to continue to learn under new conditions.

1.     Schedule for deep work/thinking: Identify the times that you are most productive and able to engage and those times when you lack energy and are depleted of any ability to make decisions. Majority of the time first thing in the morning is when people operate best so don’t be using this time to respond to your 30 emails. Use this time to do the work that requires deep thought and concentration.

2.     Embrace boredom. Our brains are rewarded with novelty so it is very easy to get distracted. I think we have all been in that place where we just cannot sit still. I think we will be seeing it more once the “littles” start to school from home. Newport suggests that in order to get better at concentrating we have to embrace boredom to try and reshape the connection your brain has built up of constant need for stimuli. This means we have to demonstrate attentional discipline where we might have checked our phones or social media pages whilst waiting for people to arrive at a meeting or to swap tasks when you have not quite completed the current task…try and resist the urge. Practice it outside of the workplace, sit on the train or the bus and resist spending your travel time on your phone.

3.     Drain the shallows. “Shallow work’ is anything that doesn’t require uninterrupted concentration. The biggest mistake most of us are making is to fill the most “brain supercharged” times with shallow work. Whilst not as draining it is still exhausting your brain bit by bit. Then by the time we are ready to tackle those more cognitive challenging tasks we are too tired, exhausted or we have an extreme lack of discipline. Schedule in your “shallow work” and don’t be influenced by others who try to drag you into their shallow work ie responding to emails that are not urgent and require not real decision making. You may look to schedule responding to emails or administrative tasks late afternoon as opposed to first thing in the morning. For others working in the evenings might work best once all kids are in bed. I found a wonderful cohort of working mums that found that 8pm – 11pm was their most productive time of the day which was after kids were all in bed and they just seemed to find their “creative flow” during this time.

4.     Reduce the impacts of digital media – you know what I am talking about here.

ATTENTIONAL INTELLIGENCE CHECKLIST

1.     Create an Attention management plan.

’One way to boost our will power and focus is to manage our distractions instead of letting them manage us’. Daniel Goleman.

Jot down a quick outline of tasks for the day that allows you to schedule your “cognitive/brain intensive work” at the times that you know you work better. Schedule in the “shallow/administrative” tasks that do not require a lot of “brain effort” during the day that you know you will be easily distracted and can chunk the tasks into 25min bursts.

2.     Tools and resources.

It has been a week of scrambling for many of us to find the right tools that will allow us to work and manage our teams remotely. I will work with a few amazing colleagues to put together a list of tools and why. Tools and resources that are not “fit for purpose” create more harm than good. Spend some time getting this right but importantly use this time to train your people on how to use tools. There are so many software companies stepping up right now for schools and organisations to help with team management, project management, workshopping, task management, creativity, idea generation, meetings, and the list goes on.

3.     Goal clarity & accountability.

This is a perfect time to ensure your team has clarity and accountability around their goals. The impact their work has on the team and the organisation. A perfect time to have a discussion about why they matter and their work matters. Whilst it is easy to let the scramble for technology hijack our attention, our focus needs to be our people. I think you would be surprised at the amount of leaders who assume that their staff know what and why they are doing their tasks. So do this individually with employees but also reinforce this in virtual meetings and onsite meetings. With this clarity you should be able to give a sense of empowerment and autonomy to employees which could lead to great rewards and increased productivity (despite not being in the office).

4.     Communications

Wow! I bet you wished you kept all the internal communications teams about now. Your communications efforts to staff need to double for now. Until you have created a sense of psychological safety with a mobile workforce. Individual conversations, project meetings and “connection” meetings need to a priority. Keep communication constant, consistent, and informative. Provide certainty where you can, empower staff to give ideas, suggestions and continue to “speak up”. Remain connected and schedule time for the team to meet to chat or “virtual lunch”. Link to your purpose and make this clear to individuals and teams. There might not be a lot of certainty but admin that. Admin you don’t know what is going to happen but give certainty where you can ie tasks, accountability, what needs to be done and the value they provide to the organisation. Join a #thistooshallpass movement.

5.     Checks and Balances

Like our bodies our brains need to have checks and balances. Cognitive tasks are draining and we need to continually refresh. So hydrate, feed, energise. Drink water, eat good healthy foods, exercise.

6.     Digital Resources

Authors Brynjolfsson and McAfee (2011): ‘[o]ur technologies are racing ahead but many of our skills and organisations are lagging behind’.

How true is this statement and this was in 2011, if only they knew how right they would be. Our digital resources whilst a great enabler of customer experience and employee experience are also one of the greatest risks to productivity, creativity, innovation and mental health. So we need to start managing this in our work and home.

            a.     Develop email etiquette – whether it’s as an organisation or personally create some rules around the effective use of email. With so many topics now vying for attention create some reference rules for the subject line to help people manage their time. You might add a subject top and a level of urgency or importance for the recipient. Turn your pop up’s off and consider closing your emails entirely until you have scheduled specific down time to manage them.

            b.     Internet – try to reduce the number of “unscheduled” clicks as you go from browser to browser finding the next interesting thing. Reduce your pop ups. Ask yourself is this the correct time to be looking for things on the internet or could I do this later.

             c.      Mobile Phone – don’t take it into meetings, during scheduled deep work put it away from you so that you can get a solid 45mins of work. If it is a critical time when you need to have your phone perhaps you have not scheduled your deep work appropriately. Schedule emails, returned calls, social calls to times when you have scheduled “shallow work”.

7.     Meetings

In meetings make sure that there is a clear purpose. That each meeting has an outcome. That people have had time to read the agenda and come with information relevant to that agenda. Don’t give them a day try and give them a few days to come prepared for a meeting. List the key questions you want answered in the meeting. Ask each person how they can help answer those questions. This is still an important time to focus on psychological safety and ensure that everyone has an opportunity to participate and speak up. Your facilitation skills are critical here –especially in virtual meetings.

8.     Distraction Management Plan

Linda Ray from Neurocapability says “you can prime your brain to notice distractions. Put some conscious effort into managing tasks one at a time. Catching distraction early means less wasted time. When you find yourself being distracted, don’t stress about it. Quietly make a decision as to what to do to refocus, rather than engaging in the distraction”.

9.     No such thing as multi tasking

A great myth but whilst we think we can do two things at once, research shows that there is a significant decline in the quality of work done. So when you need focus, focus on one task. Every time you switch tasks you are depleting what remains of your cognitive ability.  You could say that attentional intelligence is about disciplined focus, it’s about mastering your thoughts and attention as opposed to being led by them.

Today, it can help minimise distractions and evaluate our own processes and how we can gain more out of our day. To gain some “wins” in achieving work goals and create that rush of celebration when we tick of each task successfully. It’s also a great skill we can teach our children and help them prepare for schooling from home.

Feeling stressed or distressed and anxious about the current changes – attentional intelligence can support you in regulating your emotions by helping you ask questions about what you are feeling and reframe it to gain perspective.

Attentional intelligence is part of three intelligences – social intelligence, emotional intelligence being the other two skill sets required to lead, manage, influence and succeed not just at work but at home. To me these intelligences are not something that you will ever conquer it is a continual learning process where you just keep getting better and better.

Hope this helps.

xx