If you’re like most of us, you spend your days longing for more time. If you could only have an extra hour or two in the day, you think, you could be so much more successful. But time isn’t our most precious resource — attention is, according to Shehelmina Abji, a former IBM vice president who led a team that earned more than $1 billion in revenue. Abji is now a TEDx speaker and author of the new book Show your worth: 8 intentional strategies for women to emerge as leaders at work. And, she says, a few simple changes to how you spend your workday will help you maximize the precious resource and help you achieve your biggest goals.
Why does Abji say that attention is so important? If you think about it, the most successful people in the world have exactly the same 24 hours in a day as you do, she explains. “What sets our success apart is how we pay attention.”
Because we’re all with mobile devices, we’re all getting information and alerts all the time, she adds. “If we’re not careful, we could be in a meeting — or dining with our spouse or kids — and our attention is elsewhere. So we’re not really there.”
If that happens, you risk losing. “If you’re not really present, it’s very hard to figure out how to show up in the best possible way, add value to the situation, and get on the road to your own success,” she says.
Here’s Abji’s advice for making the best use of that most precious resource—your attention.
1. Focus on the present moment.
If a meeting, conversation, or task is important enough to earn room in your calendar, it’s important enough to earn your undivided attention, Abji says. That means putting your mobile device aside and really listening.
It will help, she adds, if you have a desired outcome for each such encounter. That desired outcome could be learning something, contributing something useful, or both. And you should always strive to leave the best possible impression, building your personal brand, she adds.
Even if what someone has to say is boring or repetitive, you should still pay attention and look for opportunities to add value to the conversation. ‘Put yourself in their place. If you talk and someone doesn’t listen to you, how would you feel?’
2. Stay energetic.
It’s hard to really be present when you’re feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, Abji says. That’s why she recommends coming up with your own strategy for feeling energized throughout the workday. Start with a morning routine that will leave you feeling energized when you start the day. And then make sure to take frequent breaks throughout the day, either 5-10 minutes every hour, or 15 minutes every few hours. Make sure to build in a little buffer time between meetings or phone calls so you can recharge. “You need to know yourself well enough to know how to appear fully energized and ready to fully engage,” she says. “And then appear like this every week.”
3. Learn to say no.
As Warren Buffett and others have noted, the more successful you are, the more you have to say no to things. How do you get good at saying no? Start by having a clear idea of what your highest priorities are, Abji says. “What are the odds that if you achieve it, it will bring you closer to your own definition of success? What deserves my attention?” Only things that meet these criteria should be allowed on your calendar, she says.
Your customers’ priorities, or those of your boss, should be your priorities too, she adds. But if a proposed meeting, conversation, or task doesn’t meet these criteria, say no gently but firmly.
This way you get maximum benefit from the things you say yes to. “When you do that, you’re fully present, because you already have an agenda for how you want to show up,” she says. “What do you want to get out of it? What is the value you want to create? How do you want to grow?” If you’re focused on these questions, she says, “Your mind won’t wander into the past or the future or anywhere else.”
To give that level of focus to every meeting you attend, you have to say no to many other meetings and invitations that don’t help you achieve your goals, she says. “For a lot of people, including me, it’s very difficult. We want to work together. We want to come across as team players. We want to please people and make friends with people. So we will say yes even if something doesn’t work” It doesn’t get us in towards our definition of success. But if you do, you won’t optimize your performance. You’ll eventually lose respect. And you won’t be able to get the best out of everything you do.” Nobody benefits from that, not your customer, not your company and certainly not you.
Treating your attention as a precious resource, to be carefully nurtured and spent wisely, means you’ll be doing a great job when it really matters. Try making these small changes and see what they can do for you.