Our Head of Digital Learning, Hugh Reynolds, reflects on two things he’s passionate about – and how they help him deal with distraction and loss of focus. These are common symptoms of what he calls Digital Indigestion.
It must be worth something because we're said to pay it.
Sometimes we're ordered to stand to it.
Many bemoan its shrinking span.
Will these words hold yours?
Before mine is seized by something else entirely, I'd better tell you about two things that have been helping me attend to the subject of attention:
- Going to the theatre.
- Getting some coaching.
At their best, these are both activities in which we collaborate and into which we agree to invest our attention. This is what theatre director Peter Brook was getting at when he said there is only a practical difference between an actor and a member of the audience: both of them are giving their attention to create and realize new possibilities. Granted, it's usually only the actors that know the script - they are the ones holding what coaches often call the agenda. Yet the magical moments of realisation in theatre are ones constructed through a shared focus. Insights and discoveries are brought about through deepening the quality of everyone's attention.
For me, there's a strong parallel between the powerful effects I feel when participating in a performance - whether I'm on or off the stage - and those I experience in a coaching session - whether I'm the one coaching, or the one being coached. The most lucid and exhilarating moments of attention are infrequent. Yet, I wonder what would happen if we could welcome more of them into our working lives. What if we sought to attend more to attention?
I'm quite good at attending to thousands of things every day. This is a boast backed-up both by what people say to me, and the things they keep asking me to do for them. The quantity of attention has never been the slightest problem for anyone kept - or keeping themselves - busy. A much more pressing concern is quality. I'm quite bad at applying, in my own life, the same quality of attention, focus and reflection that exhilarates me when I'm watching other lives acted out in drama. In fact, coaching is one of very few ways I've found to reach a higher quality of attention to my own issues, and the real world dramas which star me and those in my community.
It's not enough to bring the attention to bear on yourself, because - just like mine - I'm guessing... and sorry to be presumptuous here... I'm guessing your life is composed of multiple strands, ambitions, inter-relationships and anxieties? Zooming into that life, there are all sorts of directorial decisions about where, where precisely, you might wish to focus - or re-focus attention. The habits we fall into, and the relentlessly pestering digital worlds in which we work, don't help here one jot. Instead, they can draw us into ruts. Pre-cut tracks of thinking and doing. These ruts are often ones designed by others to obliterate our focus on what we really want to attend to. They can steer us into the service of something else entirely. It's easy to forget that where we place our attention is a decision. And if we don't assume the role of director, someone - or something - else will. I've recently been reminded of this by the graphic artist Austin Kleon - whose books are amongst the best I've ever read on attaining creative focus. He writes:
"Your attention is one of the most valuable things you possess, which is why everyone wants to steal it from you. First you must protect it, and then you must point it in the right direction.
As they say in the movies, “Careful where you point that thing!”
Regaining control of your own attention, through coaching for example, can unlock parts of yourself you might have previously overlooked. My colleague Phil Hayes, founder of Management Futures, once put it this way:
"I have learned over time that there is a whole world of other experiences out there - that I can change or even enhance the quality of my experience by paying more attention to different parts of it."
So given this wealth - this bundle of experience that is my life - it seems a good move to move my attention to different portions and aspects of my world. Of course, it helps to have a brilliant coach. I was interested to read some testimonial on Phil's profile: “Phil took me out of the daily grind… I felt energised by the coaching sessions which were like a shot of vitamins, oxygen and adrenalin all at once.” The best coaches enable us to create a special space and time in which we can attend to ourselves. In this way, the place where coaching happens becomes somewhere that is somehow other or apart from the everyday. Such places, referred to as Heterotopias by philosopher Michel Foucault, work to help us make sense of the existing order in our lives. They reveal the structures, yet also destabilize the foundations of the knowledge we hold about ourselves. As with coaching - where so often we can surprise ourselves with new discoveries, deeper insight - so with the theatre: another space apart which can unsettle, and re-set how we see our worlds.
If I had to choose just a few lines on this theme, ones from the stage that have kept resounding within me since I first heard them, I'd quote these ones spoken by Linda Loman, about the plight of her husband in 'Death of a Salesman':
"His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him.
So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog.
Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person."
Here, the playwright Arthur Miller is driving home his agenda - one that his characters - the actors playing them - and the participating audience - absolutely electrify with their shared attention. And maybe that is where we should draw a very clear dividing line between theatre and coaching, because the next time you're being coached - the only person's agenda that's going to matter will be yours.
When you next take this time out of the daily grind, attention will be paid.
References & Resources
Angharad E. Beckett, Paul Bagguley and Tom Campbell, Foucault, Social Movements and Heterotopic Horizons: rupturing the order of things, (University of Leeds - White Rose Online, 2017)
Peter Brook, The Empty Space (McGibbon & Kee, 1968)
Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (Taylor & Francis, 1971)
Phil Hayes, NLP Coaching (Open University Press, 2006)
Austin Kleon, Don't Give Up: 10 Ways To Stay Creative In Good Times And Bad, (Workman Publishing, 2019)
Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman (Viking Press, 1949)