Pay Attention to What Has Your Attention

Last Updated Dec 9, 2008 3:13 PM EST



To most effectively utilize the fundamentals of self-management,
it helps to have a reference point for where to start. You won’t
have to look far, because what usually most needs your attention is what most has
your attention. Things are on your mind because you are consciously putting
your focus on them or because your attention is being grabbed. In the latter case
your thinking is being pulled toward something that in some way needs your
engagement, and it more than likely is something that needs greater control or
perspective to release its hold on your psyche.

Many important things are not on your mind because they
don’t need to be — they are on “cruise control.”
What, then, does that say about the affairs that are grabbing your
attention? There’s something about them that has not been captured,
clarified, decided, or handled sufficiently. That inventory of items that are
on your mind because they must still be managed appropriately is the grist for
the mill for winning at your game.

Identifying what’s on your mind is the first step of getting control. You may
have already been thinking that making a to-do list is all that I’m
referring to, and in a way that’s true. But what most people put on
those kinds of lists is but a fraction of what they should, to really gain
maximum control and perspective. If anything is still on your mind, in the
sense of holding your attention hostage, you can still improve your clarity and
focus by paying appropriate attention to it.

If you don’t pay attention to what has your
attention, it will take more of your attention than it deserves.
The
accumulated amount of mental, psychic, and emotional energy that will be
expended on whatever the thought is, over any length of time, will be far
greater than would be necessary to either deal with the situation that
triggered it or decide not to.

What does it take to truly release the hold these potential distractions have on your mind? Don’t consider them distractions,
but rather handle them as a ringing phone — a call coming from a
situation. If it goes unanswered, it will continue to call. If you do pick it
up, however, and then deal with the incoming message sufficiently, it doesn’t
need to call again. But if you don’t pick up the line for the less-than-critical
things, the circuit will stay busy and not allow the rest of your inputs to
have adequate space.

All of this is to affirm the somewhat counterintuitive
notion that, in one respect, everything is equally important. Everything, that
is, that grabs your attention. If what you need to be able to manage your life
and work is full access to your focus, anytime and all the time, then whatever diminishes that capability should be eliminated. Ignoring it is an option,
but not a good one. If it will go away in time, put it away now. If it won’t,
get it into a trusted system. The good news is
that the process of dealing with these blips is
identical whether they are large or small. But if you don’t accept
what’s there to begin with, you undermine your effectiveness.

The unique power of the principles in this book can only be
accessed to their fullest when they are applied across all aspects of your life. In other words, you will be prevented from moving into Captain
and Commander mode whenever you don’t pay attention to what
has your attention. It doesn’t mean that all the things hooking your
focus are equal in substance and potential meaning. Hardly. It does mean that
you must responsibly unload and identify all of them in order to be able to address substance and
meaning most effectively.

If in a staff meeting you are attempting to inspire
your team with the new vision and mission statement of the company, but
everyone in the room knows that a third of them are
getting laid off next week, that unacknowledged elephant in the room will put
such a cloud over the meeting that not only will your attempt at motivation be
ineffective, you will lose major equity in terms of trust and leadership. Likewise, if you are attempting to set priorities
for yourself and subliminally know that there are at least 43 things
impinging on you that you have not yet tracked
and managed, you’ll resist the whole process and feel even guiltier than
you did to begin with.

So, if you’re not sure where to start, start with
what is. Get it on the table. I have been in countless situations as a
consultant, counselor, or coach where I didn’t have the foggiest idea
what I should or could do to assist the client or the team. And over the years
I have learned that, without fail, one technique always yanked
victory from the jaws of defeat. I just asked, in some form, appropriate to the
situation, “OK, so what’s true right now?”

That’s also why the GTD model is so consistently
successful. As opposed to putting forward an idealized starting point where you “should”
start, we suggest that you begin with where you are. Very few people, when we
ask them to capture what’s on their mind, start off with, “Fulfill
my destiny on the planet.” Most begin with something like “Fix
printer” or “Get babysitter for the weekend.” If
your destiny, or your strategic vision, or your ideal outcome for your mom’s
elder-care situation is the first thing on your mind, fabulous. Grab it. If it’s
not, and you really want to effectively identify and incorporate those higher-horizon
commitments, you must start with what’s taking up the space in front
of them. More often than not that’s 22 e-mails you’ve
been avoiding, the sitter you need to arrange for your kids for tomorrow night,
and buying cat food. If you don’t deal with those effectively, they will
undermine your recognition of the bigger stuff or at least diminish your
ability to focus on them clearly.


Adapted from "Making It All Work" by David Allen, by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.


  • David Allen

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