In a world where we are bombarded with so much information, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to focus and zero in on the important things that truly matters. We are all affected by it.
The reality is that the complexities around us are intensifying at a rapid rate. Each new day requires of us to balance and make sense of an enormous flow of data from our televisions, newspapers, the internet, e-mail (especially those with the dreaded attachments), text messages, voicemail, faxes, cell phones, pagers, billboards, junk mail, magazines, books, catalogs and meetings. We are inundated with information and there is no place to hide. It is simply everywhere and just never lets up whether we are at work or at play. It has been estimated that one single issue of the New York Times contains more information than the average 17th century citizen would come across in an entire lifetime. Thus, every day information from every possible direction competes for our attention.
Attention is fast becoming a scarce commodity and is perhaps becoming even scarcer than time. With all of the information that we have to process every day it is difficult to give anything enough attention to do it justice. What is happening more and more often is that we interrogate what is in front of us only scantly on the surface and move on the next issue demanding our attention. The risk in this is that we do not spend enough time on issues to scratch under the surface and apply our minds. Problem is, if we all don’t apply any depth of thinking the result is that collectively we cannot evolve – and more importantly our lack of attention can come back to bite us.
As human beings our natural curiosity is what has driven our ability to create the world we live in today. Unfortunately our creation is now in turn placing a damper on our curiosity. As we deal with an onslaught on our attention, we have less time to think and be curious enough to create at the scale we need to.
Many of us are starting to wake up to the fact that we are losing our ability to focus on a subject long enough to see all the different angles before making our decisions. This is particularly important for internal auditors who have to use their analytical ability to illuminate problematic areas in their organisations.
Essentially this means that we need to acquire a new skill which was previously not really on our radar. We now need to learn to manage our attention. This is perhaps even more important than the skill of managing information (as computers are increasingly carrying the burden in this area). It takes a fair amount of focused attention to develop new ideas to the smallest detail. People like Einstein developed revolutionary new ideas as a result of their ability to zero in on the problem and block out distractions. Problem solving requires that narrow focus in the absence of distractions. This is a skill that has to be developed the same way an athlete trains and practices for a marathon. Internal auditors simply cannot add the value they ought to add if they have a short attention span. It is that ability to zero in, focus long enough and apply your mind that is the key ingredient to creating value. That is where creative thinking takes place.
Turning the tide starts with awareness of self and to what degree one does not pay attention to the important things at a deep enough level. What I find useful is to create opportunities to mill over things that need my deeper attention. I often use my wogging (walking and jogging) time to think about those things I haven’t had time to explore in my mind. When I’m at the office I sometimes close my door to shut the world and its distractions out, and create an incubator where I can think at a deeper level. I do believe it starts with acknowledging when I’m in scanning mode and being aware of the fact that I’m not really paying enough attention. The onus is then on me to evaluate whether the risk of missing something in the matter at hand is acceptable or not. If not, I should stop the process and delay my decision. That puts me in a stronger position to make the right decision later when I am able to concentrate.
Another element that really helps me is the fact that I am aware of the fact that I naturally work in cycles. At times I perform at my peak in my reasoning ability and at other times my brain tends to be a bit foggy. I have learnt to use my productive cycle to the maximum and to use the down time, when my brain is refuelling, to deal with the mundane stuff that don’t really need my full attention. This of course does mean that one has to understand the difference between what is urgent and what is important. Flowing with my cycle and using my peak for the more important things helps to smooth out the valleys. It is about finding what works for you, but ensuring in the process that you give adequate attention to those areas that demand it.The first step is to teach oneself to live consciously. In other words, be aware of your level of awareness and train yourself to pay attention. With practice comes skill.