Pay attention to what you’re paying attention to

Two weeks away, one week back at work.  What have I achieved?

In two weeks away, some reflection, some reading, some thinking – or doing a part of my job which I enjoy (enough to relax by doing it), which I think is important, and which I do far too little of while I am actually at work.  In one week back, I have more or less wrestled my pile of emails into submission, had some useful conversations and had the very rewarding sensation of my team getting on with doing great things without me – but have not done any of a list of more substantial tasks which are less urgent but perhaps more important.

As ever, Seth Godin is pithy and pertinent:

When you’re done with your email queue, are you done?

Do you spend your day responding and reacting to incoming all day… until the list is empty? … and then you’re done.

I’m noticing that it’s easier than ever to have that sort of day. Online tools are arranging interactions in a line, allowing you to feel satisfied with a constant stream of incoming alerts and pings.

Years ago, I got my mail (the old fashioned kind) once a day. It took twenty minutes to process and I was forced to spend the rest of the day initiating, reaching out, inventing and designing. Today, it’s easy to spend the whole day hitting ‘reply’.

Carving out time to initiate is more important than ever.

In a slightly different context, Scott Rosenberg recalls advice he attributes to Howard Rheingold – to “Pay attention to what you’re paying attention to.”  Scott’s interest is in how he is spending his ‘media time’, but I think the advice is better and broader than that.  Being alert about what is influencing your thinking and perception is always useful.  For those of us working in large organisations, that’s particularly important, not least as a way of reducing the risk of group think, of doing things this way because this is how we do things.  It’s also important as a way of measuring where we are in the constant tension between urgency (or at least expressed urgency) and importance – and as with so many things, measurement is necessary, though far from sufficient, if there is to be control.

One technique I have found useful is to think in terms of time budgeting.  How much time am I prepared to spend working.  Within that, what’s the most important thing I need to do, and how much time should I commit to doing it.  Iterate until time is accounted for.  Of course in the real world that needs to take account of other people’s needs and preferences – but it also leads pretty forcibly to the conclusion that responding to every clamour for attention from emails and meetings is a rapid route to perdition.  The analysis is one thing.  Putting it into practice is quite another.  But this is a useful reminder to have another go.


  1. It would be easy if thinking and emailing were two separate activities. But email has changed the way I think about thinking. When I sat at a standalone PC, awaiting the thump of envelopes in the in-tray in the morning, I was more careful about selecting my thinking partners. I thought more before I met, talking through my problems with fewer, better placed people than is usual in the current email trail. Now, we email when we think there is a problem, and again when we know we have a problem; we email our thoughts on other people’s problems and we click too many invitees when we hastily set up (yet another) telekit. All this means we have to scroll through too many, fragmented pieces of thought as we inch our way down our virtual in-trays. Tomorrow I will start a new day’s resolution to think more, email less.

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