In Michael Lewis’ book “The Big Short” he describes the listening style of a major character Steve Eisman thusly:
“Eisman had a curious way of listening; he didn’t so much listen to what you were saying as subcontract to some remote region of his brain the task of deciding whether whatever you were saying was worth listening to, while his mind went off to play on its own. As a result, he never actually heard what you said to him the first time you said it. If his mental subcontractor detected a level of interest in what you had just said, it raised a signal to the mother ship, which then wheeled around with the most intense focus, ‘say that again’ he’d say.” (P.139 Kindle edition.)
Now I’ll bet this sort of listening style sounds familiar to many of you and it certainly did to me. One of the most difficult challenges I have always had is FOCUSED LISTENING. My brain just loves to play and I can only imagine how many important things communicated to me over the years went right by me.
Focused listening requires a disciplined ATTENTION SPAN, a discipline that has very real psychological and physiological limits. While estimates of our human capacity for focused attention vary by age and our personal interest in the topic, 20 minutes seems to be about the outer limit for most adults (see the research cited in the Wikipedia article entitled “Attention Span”). Throw in the many distractions available in the modern world — computers, smart phones, text messages etc.– and we could be talking about second before our brains drift off course.
So what to do when focused listening is really important? Here are a few things that have worked for me.
Start by managing your attention span. That’s right. Consciously determine to concentrate as long as you can on something you consider a high priority topic or conversation. Paying attention does not happen by accident. It is an act of will. If you lack the essential will power your natural attention span requires, little else will help.
Steve Eisman, according to Lewis, chose not to pay attention until his subcontractor suggested he should. But once with intense focus he said “say that again”, you would, writes Lewis. “Because now Eisman was so obviously listening to you, and as he listened so selectively, you felt flattered”. (P.139)
Eliminate all unnecessary distractions when you decide it is time to concentrate your attention on something or someone important. Get away from your computer. Do not answer your phone. No text messages or tweets. If you have a cluttered desk, move elsewhere. Exercising the will power necessary for focused concentration is hard enough without tempting yourself with appetizing side shows. So clear the clutter and focus your attention.
When are you at your best each day? This varies for each of us. Some of us are morning people. Some have a burst of energy mid to late afternoon. Try to identify your peak daily performance hours and as best you can and concentrate on your most important projects, activities, and critical conversations when you are at your best
In an article entitled “15 Easy Ways To Work Smarter” author Stephanie Vozza recommends spending 20% of every work day — 90 minutes of an eight-hour day — on your top priorities and high value activities. The work you ignore during that period she calls “strategic procrastination” (“Fast Company”, November 2015). So why not address your 20% when you are at your best if you can?
Take breaks to recharge your batteries. Whatever the outer limit of the human attention span, it is not infinite. Our bodies and brains have a way of telling us when it is time for a break. Take it, do not ignore those signals, Take a walk, outside if you can. Let your mind wander to less weighty matters. Do less important work that requires less intense focused attention. Play for a short time, however you engage that activity Take a nap.
The research is compelling indicating that a short nap each day can have a powerful restorative affect on mental alertness and our capacity for concentration. I know many segments of the American work culture in particular look down on napping. Ignore them if you can.
Finally, take care of yourself in general. Get enough sleep. Exercise regularly. Take your vacations. Everything is easier and we are generally our most productive, when rested and physically at our best. Conversely, nothing is easy and we are simply less able to concentrate with focus when tired, overworked and stressed out.
Ever notice after a vacation how those mountains you left behind now seem like mole hills. There is a good reason for that. Real vacations are a great form of taking care of yourself and gaining a better sense of perspective.