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5 tips for entrepreneurs with short attention spans

(MoneyWatch) Like many entrepreneurs I know -- especially chronically right-brained types -- I struggle with a short attention span.

Where was I?

Oh, yes, attention span... .

My noisy business owner's head and ever-wandering imagination often make it difficult for me to focus (much less "laser-focus") on specific tasks or issues, especially if they're analytical, operational, or otherwise boring and soul-sapping to me. But running a business requires paying attention to things we love and things we hate, and I know I can't just do the fun stuff.

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I'm often envious of people who are endurance athletes of attention, but at the same time I am thankful for many of the qualities that make my mind a bit anarchic. Regardless, I know I have to do better at the attention thing -- to balance what Buddhism calls the "monkey mind" with the ability to call the mental proceedings to order when needed.

One sec... I just... OK, I'm back.

Anyway, I have a long way to go, but I'm determined to make progress in my quest to pay more and better attention when needed. So I'm focusing (an ironic word to use) on five things that I think are key to reining in a caroming cranium. Some of these are classic time management techniques, but they bear reviewing and consideration as tools for the easily distracted:

1. Turn off: We all know that technology is the best friend and worst enemy of time management, but when it comes to attention-span management, it is virtually always the bad guy. If you're trying to focus, nothing good can come of a ringing phone, chiming e-mail or chirping text. I'm a communication addict, obsessed with being responsive. But I know that it comes at a price -- when I'm a slave to my bells and beeps and screens, I (and other people and priorities) suffer for it. Powering down is extraordinarily difficult, but if you're not an attention-paying pro, you must do it. I'm making slow progress, like pushing the "ignore" button on my phone when I'm speaking with someone or working on something critical. But the next step is to not have the phone on at all when there are important things on which to focus. Same for e-mail -- make that especially e-mail.

2. Get away: The place where you sit all day to get things done can be the most difficult place to get things done. Aside from those bells and beeps and screens, there are piles of sigh-inducing paper, people walking in and out, pictures of the kids doing things you wish you were doing, nothing but distractions. If you really want to focus on something, take that thing, leave all the rest behind, go sit somewhere else -- preferably alone -- and ask not to be interrupted. A quiet meeting room or empty office is conducive to a clearer head.

3. Really get away: If you have important stuff that needs your undivided attention and it just isn't happening, get out of Dodge. Go someplace far enough away that you can't just drive back to the office (but travel frugally, natch), bring only the things that need doing, lock yourself in a hotel room for a few days, power down, and reward yourself with a good meal or a couple of hours of sight-seeing for each thing you complete. I used to think this "metreat" concept was silly and indulgent, until people talked me into trying it a couple of years ago. I got more off my plate in those three days than I ever thought I could, or normally would. It absolutely works.

4. Shut up and stare: This is a tough one for me, because while I know that it's better to listen more than you talk, I still talk a lot. It's my noisy brain letting some of the noise out (that's my story and I'm sticking with it). But I am making a concerted effort to do better, and I've found it helps to stare at people; not in a creepy way, but in an undistracted way. I notice that when my attention starts to wander, my eyes often follow. We all know the importance of eye contact, and aside from just being a good people skill, looking intently at people when they speak actually helps your brain -- and your mouth -- quiet down.

5. Focus on the outcome: One of the problems with the attention-challenged is that we get bored by process. We dwell on the dread and tedium of staring at reports or sitting in meetings; we crave action and results. So instead of thinking "I don't want to deal with this inventory report," I remind myself that we'll have a great holiday season if we have the right stock of our key products. Sounds simplistic, but focusing on the payoff actually does help me to give that boring report the attention it needs.There's a prize at the end of the spreadsheet.

I know many of you share my challenge. Many of us will never be the laser-focus type -- hey, look, a shiny thing! -- and ideally we have great people to make up for our weaknesses. But consistently trying to give our attention spans a good stretch is a worthwhile exercise.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Marco Arment

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