Defending your attention

You do not operate in a helpful or neutral attention environment. The environment is hostile to your control of your attention. It sounds dramatic, but your attention is constantly under attack. This, as much as anything, shows that it is valuable.

Attacks come from three kinds of sources: yourself, your stakeholders, and non-stakeholders who believe your attention is valuable. Further, it is useful to classify attacks as either distractions, which come from you and your habits, or interruptions, which come from others.

Distractions are internal. We cause them ourselves. We need to set aside mental space and defend it fiercely, even from ourselves. I believe what David Allen says – if we put our “stuff” in a trusted place, our brains will stop offering up distractions. So, how are you organizing your “stuff” to defend against distracting yourself?

Our habits both cause distractions and serve as our primary defense against them. If your habit is to check email or Facebook first, you are opening up your attention defenses to attack. If, in preparing for deep work, you shut down your browser and tidy up your workspace, you are defending against distractions. How do your habits and processes help defend your attention?

Interruptions are external. The phone rings, or someone stops by your office with a question. They are a common fact of life for everyone. These kinds of interruptions need defenses as well. Close your email client; put your phone on silent, or in airplane mode. Teach your stakeholders how to get attention requests into the proper queue. How do you defend your attention against random interruptions?

Leaders are more likely to be exposed to interruptions by the nature of their work. But leaders also normally have the power to delegate tasks. Take stock of your interruptions and see if there is some weakness in your delegation processes. One clear sign is that the people you delegate to don’t have the level of authority they need. What defenses have you put in place to guard your attention as a leader?

Your attention is valuable and people are trying to get it. Some of those people are legitimate stakeholders. They deserve your attention, at least at some point. Others are not stakeholders, but want to be; you need to choose when and how they get your attention. Requests for your attention from the web and email probably don’t deserve as much of your attention as they currently get. Finally, you probably distract yourself. If so, you can defend through getting the stuff in your skull out into a system and choosing better habits. We all need to prepare our defenses – delegation, habits, and systems – as much as we can. And we need to do it in advance.

Question: What are you doing in advance to defend your attention against constant distractions and interruptions?