Focus Attention for Less Stress and Better Choices

Is your week off to a busy start?  You’re in good company!  In his book Focus, Daniel Goleman quotes Tony Schwartz,

“Attention is now the number-one issue on the minds of our clients.”

Focused attention is rare in a world of increasing distractions and multi-tasking.  People often run on autopilot.  They constantly rush to the next meeting and attention is pulled in multiple directions.  This is both stressful and risky for those responsible for making decisions affecting their companies!   As leaders, we can address this risk.

Addressing the Risk

In working with clients, I have seen mindfulness as an excellent practice that refocuses attention and strengthens emotional intelligence.  Mindfulness is focusing awareness on the present moment without judging ourselves, rehashing the past, or worrying about the future.  This learnable skill enables us to pause and deliberately choose how to respond in a situation.  By doing this, we avoid emotionally-charged, knee-jerk reactions.  For example, a mindful leader will stop to consider implications for his/her team before agreeing to an aggressive timeline from a client; a reactive leader will be caught up in the excitement and say “yes” immediately despite the risk.

Training leaders to focus attention is more than a “nice idea.”  Companies like Aetna, Google, General Mills, and Goldman Sachs are investing in mindfulness for employees.  They are influenced by research demonstrating how developing mindfulness benefits individual and leaders (e.g., improved concentration, mental clarity, executive presence, self-awareness, etc.).  For example, Aetna reports that employees who attended at least one mindfulness class reduced stress levels by 28% on average.  Mindfulness also benefits the business through increased productivity.  Aetna employees gained an extra 62 minutes a week in productivity (estimated to be worth $3,000 per employee per year).

Small Steps toward Focus and Clarity

What can you do if your company does not offer mindfulness programs?  Start small.

Small actions can increase your focus and reduce stress.  For instance, a study of Pediatric Intensive Care Unit nurses indicated that a 5-minute mindfulness practice before a work shift significantly decreased stress within a month.  This decreased stress could have implications for patient care, employee engagement, and teamwork. Only five minutes a day to reduce stress in a highly stressful environment is a great return on investment.

Consider these three recommendations to get off autopilot and refocus attention on what matters most.

  1. Take a few minutes before starting your work day. As you breathe, focus on inhaling and exhaling. When your mind wanders, let the thoughts go and take another breath.
  2. Before taking on a new project or arriving at your destination, spend a few minutes checking in with yourself.  Take several deep breaths before jumping into the next activity.  Observe where you feel tension or stress in your body.  Imagine tension loosening with each breath.
  3. Rather than rushing to answer a call, take a deep breath before picking up the phone.

Don't give up if you feel your efforts aren't working for you right away.  Much like strengthening other leadership skills, consistent steps over time will show results.