Have you ever experienced this? A friend mentions their intention to buy a certain type of car and then – suddenly – you see that specific car everywhere.
This isn’t magic, but a matter of attention, and it’s the easiest part of you for others to hijack and control without you realizing it.
Our brains evolved such that what we pay attention to grows in importance to us. This was critical to survival when, tens of thousands of years ago, a rustle in the bushes nearby often meant something with sharp teeth and claws was eyeing you for lunch. Today, in addition to helping you notice your friend’s soon-to-be new car everywhere, this same instinct confers an unseen advantage to those seeking your attention to promote their ideas, to advance their agendas, and to sell their products and services.
Although you don’t need to worry about being eaten anymore (most days, at least), you should certainly be aware of how and when your attention is hijacked because it costs you a lot: You chase red-herring issues, you burn precious time supporting others’ agendas, and you wind up delaying your own achievement.
Although you don’t need to worry about being eaten anymore (most days, at least), you should certainly be aware of how and when your attention is hijacked.
On the other hand, as a business leader, you need to rely on your team and others for input, guidance, expertise, and more to make decisions and operate your organization. Amid the cacophony of well-intentioned voices and potential attention-hijackers surrounding you, how do you sort out who should be getting your attention?
Start by clarifying what you want.
We all have goals, aspirations, plans, and/or some vision of what we want our futures to be. Yet, in my experience, our aspirations tend to be vague and composed with “wiggle” words that increase the haze surrounding what we want for ourselves.
Here are some I’ve heard recently:
· I want to sell my business and retire.
· We’re going to get a beach house someday.
· I want to grow my business.
· When we can afford it, we want to travel around the world.
· I want to earn more.
It’s virtually impossible to assess who and what merits your attention in the absence of a crystal-clear vision of what you want. Many are familiar with SMART goal setting: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistically High, and Time-Bound, which I support, but I recommend something more here; something you can feel.
When you have a crystal-clear vision and passion, you know what you want in the deepest possible sense.
In 2012, my wife Keri and I decided we wanted to live and eventually retire on Smith Mountain Lake in southwestern Virginia. Accordingly, we created a SMART goal and built a 9-year plan for ourselves that targeted the Fall of 2021 for full time residency in Virginia. Further, we asked ourselves why: Why is it important for us to live and retire on this lake? Our answers—health, longevity, happiness, fun, adventure—literally made us cry together. We felt it, it was important to us, and we were willing to fight for it.
Despite significant obstacles and adversity, we purchased our lake home in the Spring of 2013 and have enjoyed it as a vacation home since then. As I write these words, through ups and downs (and a global pandemic!) over the years, Keri and I are literally 24 days away from the successful and on time completion of our 9-year plan! We’ll be permanently moving to Virginia from our home in New Jersey at the end of this month—Fall of 2021.
We did not make this happen alone. There were countless advisors, professionals, friends, family members, and neighbors who contributed to our journey. But because we had an extremely clear vision of our future state—one we could literally feel—it became easier to clarify who and what we should pay attention to along the way.
Now back to leadership: How clear is your vision of what you want most? Can you feel it? Can you describe it in a sentence such that others feel your passion?
When you have a crystal-clear vision and passion, you know what you want in the deepest possible sense. This state of clarity puts you in a position to be more deliberately selective of the voices around you.
I’m fairly certain one of the qualifications to be a human being is to have opinions. Since there are plenty of people around you, both internal and external to your organization, the probability of an attention hijack is roughly the same as the likelihood you’ll breathe again in the next 60 seconds: one hundred percent!
But all of those people and their opinions are not equally relevant regarding each particular question or issue you face.
In his timelessly wise and engaging book Principles, Ray Dalio introduced the term “believability” as a mechanism to weigh the value of someone’s thinking, ideas, and input. In his words, “…believable people [are] those who have repeatedly and successfully accomplished the thing in question—who have a strong track record with at least three successes—and have great explanations of their approach when probed.”
Believability—experience, proven expertise, and clear explanations—should be the most heavily weighted factor informing who and what you pay attention to as a leader.
Although potentially good ideas can come from anyone, it’s wise to assess their believability on the topic at hand as you consider their opinions and the chances of their idea’s success. Sadly, on multiple occasions, I’ve seen the least believable people in the room hijack leadership team debates. This occurs under the misguided notion that “allowing all voices to be heard” means “weighing all voices equally, regardless of experience and expertise;” a surefire path to alienate your most experienced team members, to make bad decisions, and to pursue wrongheaded ideas.
As famed American oil well firefighter Red Adair once said: “If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur.” The same holds true for soliciting ideas and opinions!
Believability—experience, proven expertise, and clear explanations—should be the most heavily weighted factor informing who and what you pay attention to as a leader. Yes, your managers, employees, clients, vendors, professional advisors, coaches, mentors, consultants, and other outside experts all have opinions and ideas to share. Just be sure that the most believable among them get the majority of the airtime and attention.
Listen carefully to those whose believability is aligned not just with the issue or question at hand, but also with moving you toward the vivid vision you seek. In many instances, Ray Dalio’s high standard for believability could also potentially eliminate you as a meaningful contributor of ideas and solutions for your own problems and aspirations. The challenge is, there’s yet another voice that will try to convince you otherwise.
This might sound like an odd request, but bear with me: Close your eyes for thirty seconds and observe where your mind goes.
. . .
What did you notice? Did you have just one thought or many? Were you focused on a single concept, or did your mind jump from topic to topic? Perhaps the internal chatter sounded something like this:
“Why is he making me do this? I hate doing things like this.”
“It feels a little cold in here.”
“I forgot to return that call!”
“I hear a dog barking.”
“I have that early meeting tomorrow; I need to make sure to check my alarm.”
“What’s for dinner tonight?”
Everything you noticed—every thought that emerged—was generated by the voice in your head: your internal narrator. This never-ceasing private dialogue runs inside you separate from whatever is happening in your real world. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s unconscious and you don’t realize two realities are occurring simultaneously. This is what makes the voice in your head so challenging to manage!
This inner voice has a significant seat at your leadership table and weighs in frequently and dramatically with great impact on your decisions and actions. For example, you may know you need to talk to an employee about his tendency to dominate meetings and alienate others—but your inner voice urges timidity: “He’s my most valuable employee and if I upset him, he’ll sell a little bit less, or he’ll find another job, or he’ll get angry and start disrupting the business in other areas.” You say nothing, having played out the conversation in your head, but denying it a chance in real life, so the problem employee and their damaging behaviors remain.
The voice in your head can also be your harshest critic, making you feel inadequate or ill-equipped to handle certain situations. At its worst, this condition is called rumination, where we replay an error or mistake over and over in our minds, fully narrated of course.
But you are not the voice in your head!
Rather, as our thirty-second pause / exercise demonstrated, you are the observer of the voice. Though it may be challenging at first, you can hear the voice in your head and recognize it as a separate entity. One helpful technique is to give your inner voice a name, like “George.” Another is to imagine the voice speaking as Mickey Mouse (or your favorite cartoon character). In both cases, you’re creating separation and putting the voice in perspective as a separate entity, and perhaps having a laugh at its expense.
When you’re conscious of the chatter, you can control it.
Other techniques include enrolling the voice as your advocate and cheerleader to support you when the going gets tough. For more on this, check out Todd Herman’s fascinating and useful book The Alter Ego Effect.
When you’re conscious of the chatter, you can control it. And controlling the voice in your head is essential to making sound decisions and following through with the right action, in business and beyond.
“Fate is shaped half by expectation, half by inattention”
– Amy Tan, “The Joy Luck Club”
Whether you realize it or not, you are surrounded and consumed by voices demanding your attention to their opinions, ideas, and agendas. If you don’t deliberately direct your attention in a manner that supports your goals and aspirations, rest assured it will be directed for you by others in a manner that serves theirs. You’ll chase red-herring issues, burn your time on others’ pursuits, and delay your own achievement.
These three techniques work together to help you gain and maintain control of your attention:
1. Know what you want and feel what you want.
2. Weigh the believability of those around you with respect to the idea or issue at hand.
3. Control your inner voice.
We humans are undisciplined and inconstant creatures, and we’re fabulous at getting in our own way. Knowing which voices to listen to helps you rise above this and is essential for sustainable achievement, particularly in our era of information bombardment and overload.
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