Simone Weil, a French philosopher, once said “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
How often do you have your smartphone in your hand, checking a text or an email and you say to the person you are with, “Keep speaking, I’m listening”?
Our modern world constantly distracts us with instant messaging, Facebook messaging, Twitter, email, texting, Instagram, and so many other forms of distraction. We’ve become addicted to multi-tasking. Work, family, and personal time is no longer divided instead it is integrated, constantly connected, setting expectations that you are always “on” and ready to engage with whomever and whenever. Even the new connected watches allow you to read your messages while on a run, checking time, or waking in the middle of the night to quickly check your messages.
I can’t authentically engage or be genuinely present with anyone if I am not giving my 100% undivided attention. And I’m positive the person I’m with also feels I am not giving them my 100%. Yet with so many of my colleagues and friends we’ve defaulted into this “constantly disrupting me is ok” mode. If we look back 15 to 20 years this wasn’t the case. The rise in popularity of smartphones and connected devices has changed our culture. We sit in meetings either in person or while on calls, at restaurants, with our children or family, or with friends and we let our attention be drawn to the multiple distractions. We don’t hold each other accountable for our commitment to the present moment.
By doing so not only do we undermine the productivity of the the conversation or the ability to genuinely connect but we send a message that other things are more important. At work this tells our colleagues it is ok to have suboptimal meetings. We do this at the risk of not fully understanding a problem because we don’t give it our full attention to dissect it and view it through multiple lenses. And worse, we define suboptimal solutions or none at all.
With our children the impact is even greater…more psychological and we risk scarring them emotionally. We send our kids a message that someone or something else is more important than them every time we check our smartphones.
So here are some strategies for undivided generosity. Note this is as much a lesson for me as anyone else.
Walk while you talk. I can’t sit at my desk during conference calls. Invariably I am drawn to instant messaging or emails and end up missing core elements or important points. So when called upon to comment I may look silly or contribute a point that has no relevance or doesn’t help move the conversation forward. In the past few years I started walking while on calls, especially while on one to one calls. I use my mobile phone and earphones and put my phone in my pocket and walk. I ignore the chimes of emails coming through as I walk. A few weeks ago I looked at my step counter after an hour call and discovered I had walked nearly 3 kilometres by simply pacing up and down a hallway at the office. Not only do I give and get the most out of a conversation I also keep my body moving. I often take calls at home while wearing a weighted vest and turn a conference call into a small workout. I’ll pace in circles between the dining room and the living room. If I do this a few times a day I really feel it in my legs by the evening. More importantly, I feel like I’ve had productive calls and progressed key issues or genuinely helped someone.
Keep your phone in your jacket. At the start of a meeting people show up and put their phone on the table sending a clear message they made need to take a call or respond to a chime. When meeting with customers or partners we have an unwritten rule where the phones stay off the table. However, with our colleagues and families we keep our smartphones in full sight at all times. I need to start leaving my phone in my jacket pocket or in my briefcase for meetings and turn off the ringer.
Set Smartphone free family time or meetings and adhere to the rule. Either have the smartphones kept in the office and not brought into the meeting room at all or while at home leave the smartphone at the front door. If a colleague comes to the meeting with their phone ask them to take if off the table.
Pay a penalty for checking your smartphone during a meeting or at a meal. I once saw a stack of phones at a dinner table. No one was allowed to touch their phones and if anyone checked their phone during the meal they would have to pay the bill for everyone. Only once the meal was over and the bill arrived were they allowed to check their smartphones.
Ultimately, this is your own decision and you need to find the discipline to give your 100% to the meetings you attend or to your children and family. While strategies may help, you have to decide that you will put them into practice.
Note, this is more of a lesson for me. Hopefully, you can find some wisdom in here as well. Please share any strategies you have for putting a stop to our multi-tasking suboptimal culture.
Maybe we can start giving everybody our undivided generosity!
Updated: Here is a link to relevant Podcast where CBC’s The Current host, Anna Maria Tremonti interviews Sherry Turkle on her new book Reclaiming Conversation, The Power of Talk in the Digital Age.