Add “attention management” to leadership essentials

I sat in a meeting a few weeks ago with two other leaders as we laid out the framework for an online course in church management and administration.  Jon Swanson (author of 300 Words a Day, who once called the issue the “Tyranny of the Distracting“) was talking about accountability, time management, and then he mentioned “attention management” and I was intrigued.

I’ve done some research on the idea since then and have become convinced that it needs to be a part of our leadership training strategies, maybe yours too.

In our noisy world, leaders need to learn how to manage their attention.

Later that week, my weekly devotional book had a prayer in it that prayed, “Deliver me from coldness of heart, a wandering mind, and wrongful desire.” Seems like an appropriate prayer for today’s multi-tasking world, eh?

I think we have more of an attention problem than we want to admit.

How many adults have you heard say they were “A.D.D.?”  It’s part of our culture to multi-task.  And it’s not helping, nor is it good for us or our productivity. We read about leadership, yet rarely discuss to what we’re leading others.  We read about blogging to almost the exclusion of what is important to blog about – and all of our leading bloggers are blogging about blogging (and making money doing so).  Sounds a bit like the life that a gerbil leads (except for the money-making part).

I’ve worked to practice a “90-minute exercise” where I focus in and work diligently on something for 90 minutes, focus uninterrupted. Yet, I’m surprised how often I AM interrupted. I watch my own children and my college students try to work on something for a sustained period of time without changing their attention …. and they can’t!   I sit in meetings with older adults and find the same thing.

We have learned over the last 20 years, just from behaviorally-developed habits, how to not be able to give sustained attention to one thing for a significant period of time.  And (here’s where I will get some pushback) we aren’t able to think as deeply.

Look at what gets most of our attention:  The “how”, the logistical, and the functioning.  We love to read about home improvement, travel, leadership, ministry, and any “doing” activities.

  • But why DO what you do?
  • What’s the reason for your course of action?
  • What personal philosophy or theory drives your decisions?
  • What theology informs your ministry?
  • How do you choose to lead, with whatever works best or is there some developed framework you follow?

The rude awakening for many of us in leadership is that perhaps we’re so busy we aren’t paying attention.  If the people we spend time with and the books we read are the two most influential factors in growing our leadership, maybe we need to look at our discipline of reading and who’s mentoring us.

How do you manage your attention?  What lessons have you learned over time to help you combat the culture’s call for frantic living that pays attention only to what’s in front of us?

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