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Routing the Yin and Yang of Attention and Distraction

Routing the Yin and Yang of Attention and Distraction

    If you’ve been obsessed with the productivity space for any length of time like those of us here at Lifehack, you’ll no doubt have read more than your fill on the topics of attention and distraction. They work together, a bit of a yin and yang, neither inherently bad or unwanted, but both requiring management and balance.

    Attention is required to complete creative work—and I don’t mean creative work in terms of just songs, stories and paintings, but anything that requires you to create something and produce a tangible result. It also is required for the effective intake of information.

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    Distraction is required to keep our minds open to new ideas, or risk it closing down to what we know and lowering the quality of our work in turn, and to allow us a break and recovery from the stressful hours of concentration and sharp direction of attention we put ourselves through. Without distraction, our ability to pay attention and concentrate suffers. And without attention and concentration, there’s simply nothing to be distracted from.

    So one must allow time for distraction, but distraction at the wrong time can kill precious hours of work, even precious days, or perhaps even more—which is the unthinkable!

    I’ve been thinking about and experimenting with ways to deal with attention and distraction and route the two so that I still can handle both, but at separate times. As a writer, I often go to my feed reader to see what’s trending and hope for a flake of illusory inspiration to alert me to one of the ideas floating through the back of my head (seriously though, waiting for inspiration to strike is a bad thing!).

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    The problem is that the feeds I enjoy reading for my own pleasure and the feeds I read to keep up with the state of the web, the world and everything, are in one place. So the inevitable happens. I go in to see what the daily trends are in areas such as productivity, audio and technology, which are what I most frequently write about, and end up reading some fantastic blog like Boing Boing or Dark Roasted Blend.

    There goes some productive time, just like that. I’m pretty good at flying through the feed reader, though I prefer to look at it as the newspaper you flick through when the urge strikes, so I can ninja through that time, but it’s still time I’d like to—and should’ve—spent working so I could relax and more fully appreciate the enjoyment of reading my favorite sites.

    The solution I came up with was to separate the two and create a subscription list filled to the brim with work-relevant feeds, and one with… well, everything and anything else I wanted to read. The great thing is that I can fill my work-related feed reader with as many relevant feeds as I like; there’s no information overload since this is really a skim account where I duck in and out of articles and mark the rest as read when I’ve got my articles done for the day. There’s no need to manage the onslaught of unread articles but with the click of a button that causes many to tremble in fear.

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    I could’ve created another Google Reader account with which to do this, but I already get frustrated with the need to switch in and out of Google accounts for different roles each day. The plug-ins available aren’t as smooth as I’d like. And it’s too easy to get mixed up and fall into the wrong feed reader at the wrong time with that method. So I decided to fire up the feed reader I used to use every day, NetNewsWire, which I’ve missed in many ways, and use that exclusively for work-related feed reading.

    This has a few benefits; I can stop having pathetically geeky arguments in my head about whether I should be using Google Reader or NetNewsWire, because I’m using both. I suppose that’s not really a benefit so much as a way of shutting myself up; it’s a stupid, stupid thing to be conflicted about.

    More importantly, the apps are separate. I got to enjoy having my reader in a browser tab, but when you’re writing and looking up source material in twenty different tabs, it helps to have a bit of separation and to more easily find your way around.

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    But in the end, the choice of application here isn’t the important thing. The important thing is that I’ve implemented a routing of attention and distraction, steering their paths away from each other without sacrificing accessibility and making it difficult to switch from one mode and into the other, and saved myself from that particular rabbit hole.

    Where else can you do this sort of thing? I’ve always been a big advocate of having one inbox—in fact, admittedly, since I’ve been using three (a personal account and two work accounts for two separate roles), I feel even more inclined that way. But if you get rabbit-holed by email, it might be good to clearly distinguish and separate your work and personal email into two accounts. I don’t get rabbit-holed by email (even when I had just the one inbox), so I don’t bother here. The time spent setting this system up would simply be lost productive time since there was no problem in the first place.

    Another classic example of this practice—one you may not have thought of as being such—is the separation between your home and the office. Keeping them separate does as much good for your work life as it does for your personal life. My office is just off the dining room, which makes coming up with extra ways to separate the two even more important. So I set up signals that tell others how willing to be distracted I am at any given time; door closed means Do Not Disturb Under Pain of Death, three quarters closed means Disturb Only If Necessary, and half-closed means I’m not working on anything requiring much focus and people are free to bug me. I can’t work with a totally open door, so there’s no signal assigned to that one!

    The door is almost always closed during “work hours,” whatever that may mean for someone who works at home. My family didn’t like the idea at first but they’ve come to realize that if I was working in a real office, they couldn’t bug and distract me, so when I’m in there with the door closed, there’s no real difference.

    This is all about keeping things that need to remain separate, but tend to collide, as far apart as possible. How do you route attention and distraction around each other, and in which areas of your life?

    More by this author

    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization The Importance of Scheduling Downtime How to Make Decisions Under Pressure 11 Free Mind Mapping Applications & Web Services How to Use Parkinson’s Law to Your Advantage

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    Last Updated on October 22, 2020

    8 Simple Ways to Be a Better Listener

    8 Simple Ways to Be a Better Listener

    How would you feel if you were sharing a personal story and noticed that the person to whom you were speaking wasn’t really listening? You probably wouldn’t be too thrilled.

    Unfortunately, that is the case for many people. Most individuals are not good listeners. They are good pretenders. The thing is, true listening requires work—more work than people are willing to invest. Quality conversation is about “give and take.” Most people, however, want to just give—their words, that is. Being on the receiving end as the listener may seem boring, but it’s essential.

    When you are attending to someone and paying attention to what they’re saying, it’s a sign of caring and respect. The hitch is that attending requires an act of will, which sometimes goes against what our minds naturally do—roaming around aimlessly and thinking about whatnot, instead of listening—the greatest act of thoughtfulness.

    Without active listening, people often feel unheard and unacknowledged. That’s why it’s important for everyone to learn how to be a better listener.

    What Makes People Poor Listeners?

    Good listening skills can be learned, but first, let’s take a look at some of the things that you might be doing that makes you a poor listener.

    1. You Want to Talk to Yourself

    Well, who doesn’t? We all have something to say, right? But when you are looking at someone pretending to be listening while, all along, they’re mentally planning all the amazing things they’re going to say, it is a disservice to the speaker.

    Yes, maybe what the other person is saying is not the most exciting thing in the world. Still, they deserve to be heard. You always have the ability to steer the conversation in another direction by asking questions.

    It’s okay to want to talk. It’s normal, even. Keep in mind, however, that when your turn does come around, you’ll want someone to listen to you.

    2. You Disagree With What Is Being Said

    This is another thing that makes you an inadequate listener—hearing something with which you disagree with and immediately tuning out. Then, you lie in wait so you can tell the speaker how wrong they are. You’re eager to make your point and prove the speaker wrong. You think that once you speak your “truth,” others will know how mistaken the speaker is, thank you for setting them straight, and encourage you to elaborate on what you have to say. Dream on.

    Disagreeing with your speaker, however frustrating that might be, is no reason to tune them out and ready yourself to spew your staggering rebuttal. By listening, you might actually glean an interesting nugget of information that you were previously unaware of.

    3. You Are Doing Five Other Things While You’re “Listening”

    It is impossible to listen to someone while you’re texting, reading, playing Sudoku, etc. But people do it all the time—I know I have.

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    I’ve actually tried to balance my checkbook while pretending to listen to the person on the other line. It didn’t work. I had to keep asking, “what did you say?” I can only admit this now because I rarely do it anymore. With work, I’ve succeeded in becoming a better listener. It takes a great deal of concentration, but it’s certainly worth it.

    If you’re truly going to listen, then you must: listen! M. Scott Peck, M.D., in his book The Road Less Travel, says, “you cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” If you are too busy to actually listen, let the speaker know, and arrange for another time to talk. It’s simple as that!

    4. You Appoint Yourself as Judge

    While you’re “listening,” you decide that the speaker doesn’t know what they’re talking about. As the “expert,” you know more. So, what’s the point of even listening?

    To you, the only sound you hear once you decide they’re wrong is, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah!” But before you bang that gavel, just know you may not have all the necessary information. To do that, you’d have to really listen, wouldn’t you? Also, make sure you don’t judge someone by their accent, the way they sound, or the structure of their sentences.

    My dad is nearly 91. His English is sometimes a little broken and hard to understand. People wrongly assume that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about—they’re quite mistaken. My dad is a highly intelligent man who has English as his second language. He knows what he’s saying and understands the language perfectly.

    Keep that in mind when listening to a foreigner, or someone who perhaps has a difficult time putting their thoughts into words.

    Now, you know some of the things that make for an inferior listener. If none of the items above resonate with you, great! You’re a better listener than most.

    How To Be a Better Listener

    For conversation’s sake, though, let’s just say that maybe you need some work in the listening department, and after reading this article, you make the decision to improve. What, then, are some of the things you need to do to make that happen? How can you be a better listener?

    1. Pay Attention

    A good listener is attentive. They’re not looking at their watch, phone, or thinking about their dinner plans. They’re focused and paying attention to what the other person is saying. This is called active listening.

    According to Skills You Need, “active listening involves listening with all senses. As well as giving full attention to the speaker, it is important that the ‘active listener’ is also ‘seen’ to be listening—otherwise, the speaker may conclude that what they are talking about is uninteresting to the listener.”[1]

    As I mentioned, it’s normal for the mind to wander. We’re human, after all. But a good listener will rein those thoughts back in as soon as they notice their attention waning.

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    I want to note here that you can also “listen” to bodily cues. You can assume that if someone keeps looking at their watch or over their shoulder, their focus isn’t on the conversation. The key is to just pay attention.

    2. Use Positive Body Language

    You can infer a lot from a person’s body language. Are they interested, bored, or anxious?

    A good listener’s body language is open. They lean forward and express curiosity in what is being said. Their facial expression is either smiling, showing concern, conveying empathy, etc. They’re letting the speaker know that they’re being heard.

    People say things for a reason—they want some type of feedback. For example, you tell your spouse, “I had a really rough day!” and your husband continues to check his newsfeed while nodding his head. Not a good response.

    But what if your husband were to look up with questioning eyes, put his phone down, and say, “Oh, no. What happened?” How would feel, then? The answer is obvious.

    According to Alan Gurney,[2]

    “An active listener pays full attention to the speaker and ensures they understand the information being delivered. You can’t be distracted by an incoming call or a Facebook status update. You have to be present and in the moment.

    Body language is an important tool to ensure you do this. The correct body language makes you a better active listener and therefore more ‘open’ and receptive to what the speaker is saying. At the same time, it indicates that you are listening to them.”

    3. Avoid Interrupting the Speaker

    I am certain you wouldn’t want to be in the middle of a sentence only to see the other person holding up a finger or their mouth open, ready to step into your unfinished verbiage. It’s rude and causes anxiety. You would, more than likely, feel a need to rush what you’re saying just to finish your sentence.

    Interrupting is a sign of disrespect. It is essentially saying, “what I have to say is much more important than what you’re saying.” When you interrupt the speaker, they feel frustrated, hurried, and unimportant.

    Interrupting a speaker to agree, disagree, argue, etc., causes the speaker to lose track of what they are saying. It’s extremely frustrating. Whatever you have to say can wait until the other person is done.

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    Be polite and wait your turn!

    4. Ask Questions

    Asking questions is one of the best ways to show you’re interested. If someone is telling you about their ski trip to Mammoth, don’t respond with, “that’s nice.” That would show a lack of interest and disrespect. Instead, you can ask, “how long have you been skiing?” “Did you find it difficult to learn?” “What was your favorite part of the trip?” etc. The person will think highly of you and consider you a great conversationalist just by you asking a few questions.

    5. Just Listen

    This may seem counterintuitive. When you’re conversing with someone, it’s usually back and forth. On occasion, all that is required of you is to listen, smile, or nod your head, and your speaker will feel like they’re really being heard and understood.

    I once sat with a client for 45 minutes without saying a word. She came into my office in distress. I had her sit down, and then she started crying softly. I sat with her—that’s all I did. At the end of the session, she stood, told me she felt much better, and then left.

    I have to admit that 45 minutes without saying a word was tough. But she didn’t need me to say anything. She needed a safe space in which she could emote without interruption, judgment, or me trying to “fix” something.

    6. Remember and Follow Up

    Part of being a great listener is remembering what the speaker has said to you, then following up with them.

    For example, in a recent conversation you had with your co-worker Jacob, he told you that his wife had gotten a promotion and that they were contemplating moving to New York. The next time you run into Jacob, you may want to say, “Hey, Jacob! Whatever happened with your wife’s promotion?” At this point, Jacob will know you really heard what he said and that you’re interested to see how things turned out. What a gift!

    According to new research, “people who ask questions, particularly follow-up questions, may become better managers, land better jobs, and even win second dates.”[3]

    It’s so simple to show you care. Just remember a few facts and follow up on them. If you do this regularly, you will make more friends.

    7. Keep Confidential Information Confidential

    If you really want to be a better listener, listen with care. If what you’re hearing is confidential, keep it that way, no matter how tempting it might be to tell someone else, especially if you have friends in common. Being a good listener means being trustworthy and sensitive with shared information.

    Whatever is told to you in confidence is not to be revealed. Assure your speaker that their information is safe with you. They will feel relieved that they have someone with whom they can share their burden without fear of it getting out.

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    Keeping someone’s confidence helps to deepen your relationship. Also, “one of the most important elements of confidentiality is that it helps to build and develop trust. It potentially allows for the free flow of information between the client and worker and acknowledges that a client’s personal life and all the issues and problems that they have belong to them.”[4]

    Be like a therapist: listen and withhold judgment.

    NOTE: I must add here that while therapists keep everything in a session confidential, there are exceptions:

    1. If the client may be an immediate danger to himself or others.
    2. If the client is endangering a population that cannot protect itself, such as in the case of a child or elder abuse.

    8. Maintain Eye Contact

    When someone is talking, they are usually saying something they consider meaningful. They don’t want their listener reading a text, looking at their fingernails, or bending down to pet a pooch on the street. A speaker wants all eyes on them. It lets them know that what they’re saying has value.

    Eye contact is very powerful. It can relay many things without anything being said. Currently, it’s more important than ever with the Covid-19 Pandemic. People can’t see your whole face, but they can definitely read your eyes.

    By eye contact, I don’t mean a hard, creepy stare—just a gaze in the speaker’s direction will do. Make it a point the next time you’re in a conversation to maintain eye contact with your speaker. Avoid the temptation to look anywhere but at their face. I know it’s not easy, especially if you’re not interested in what they’re talking about. But as I said, you can redirect the conversation in a different direction or just let the person know you’ve got to get going.

    Final Thoughts

    Listening attentively will add to your connection with anyone in your life. Now, more than ever, when people are so disconnected due to smartphones and social media, listening skills are critical.

    You can build better, more honest, and deeper relationships by simply being there, paying attention, and asking questions that make the speaker feel like what they have to say matters.

    And isn’t that a great goal? To make people feel as if they matter? So, go out and start honing those listening skills. You’ve got two great ears. Now use them!

    More Tips on How to Be a Better Listener

    Featured photo credit: Joshua Rodriguez via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Skills You Need: Active Listening
    [2] Filtered: Body language for active listening
    [3] Forbes: People Will Like You More If You Start Asking Follow-up Questions
    [4] TAFE NSW Sydney eLearning Moodle: Confidentiality

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