What Captures Your Attention Controls Your Life – HBR.org

What Captures Your Attention Controls Your Life


A few years ago, DisneyWorld executives were wondering what most captured the attention of toddlers and infants at their theme park and hotels in Orlando, Florida. So they hired me and a cultural anthropologist to observe them as they passed by all the costumed cast members, animated creatures, twirling rides, sweet-smelling snacks, and colorful toys. But after a couple of hours of close observation, we realized that what most captured the young children’s attention wasn’t Disney-conjured magic. Instead it was their parents’ cell phones, especially when the parents were using them.

Those kids clearly understood what held their parents’ attention — and they wanted it too. Cell phones were enticing action centers of their world as they observed it. When parents were using their phones, they were not paying complete attention to their children.

Giving undivided attention is the first and most basic ingredient in any relationship. It is impossible to communicate, much less bond, with someone who can’t or won’t focus on you. At the same time, we often fail to realize how what we focus on comes to control our thoughts, our actions, and indeed, our very lives.

Whatever we focus upon actually wires our neurons. For example, pessimistic people see setbacks and unhappy events as Personal (It’s worst for me), Pervasive (Everything is now worse) andPermanent (It will always be this way) according to Learned Optimism author Marty Seligman. Yet, with practice, he found that we can learn to focus more attention on the positive possibilities in situations to then to craft a redemptive narrative of our life story. Consciously changing what you pay attention to can rewire your brain from a negative orientation to a positive one. “Attention shapes the brain,” as Rick Hanson says in Buddha’s Brain.

Because attention is so closely connected to our brain’s basic wiring, it can be difficult to recognize our own patterns of giving attention — patterns we’ve been absorbing since birth. Yet different cultures do allocate attention differently. For instance, psychologist Richard E. Nisbettshowed an underwater scene to students in the U.S. and also to East Asians. While the Americans commented on the big fish swimming amongst smaller fish, the East Asians also discussed the overall scene, including plants and rocks. Nisbett concluded that East Asians focus on relationships while Westerners tend to see isolated objects rather than the connections between them.

John Hagel reported on a similar experiment. “A developmental psychologist showed three pictures to children — a cow, a chicken and some grass. He asked children from America which two of the pictures belonged together. Most of them grouped the cow and chicken together because they were both objects in the same category of animals. Chinese children on the other hand tended to group the cow and grass together because ‘cows eat grass’ — they focused on the relationship between two objects rather than the objects themselves.”

Here’s what I take from these two studies: First, that whatever you pay attention to — or not — has a huge effect on how you see the world and feel about it. And second, it’s much easier to see your own attention patterns if you take the time to learn about someone else’s.

As leaders, what you pay attention to not only controls your own brain, but sets the example for your team. Yet as with any scarce resource, you can only intelligently allocate your attention if you know where you’re spending it. Let’s go back to the Disney example. Those parents probably thought they were paying plenty of attention to the different stimuli of DisneyWorld, and to their young children. But their kids’ behavior tells us what they were really spending their attention on: their mobile phones. Most of us have probably been guilty of devoting more attention to our cell phones than we’re aware of — even though it may make those around us irate (such as the boss who sees us emailing during an important client meeting or the spouse who catches us texting during a romantic dinner).

To learn about your own attention patterns, examine someone else’s. Most motivational speakers, self-help writers, therapists and pharmacologists encourage us to focus on “me.” They suggest that we look inward to understand and improve ourselves for a happier, better life. That’s not wrong; it is just incomplete. Instead of just asking, “What most preoccupies me? Does it make the make the world seem welcoming or withholding?” reach out to someone else. Be the best listener they’ve had in months. This is the first and most basic ingredient in any interaction. Simply gazing steadily and warmly at that person, nodding at times and reiterating what you heard will activate an empathic,mirror-neuron response in both of you.

Giving and receiving undivided attention, even briefly, is the least that one individual can do for another — and sometimes the most. And yet, attending to others doesn’t just help them — it helps us, by evoking responses that help the listener feel cared for, useful, and connected to the larger world. Paying attention may be an individual effort, but it’s also a kind of social cement that holds groups together and helps them feel part of something greater than themselves. It’s not always easy, but you can improve with practice — and find yourself becoming more flexible, more open to new ideas, and better able to resonate with others. Inevitably that leads to a richer, more meaningful life.

More blog posts by Kare Anderson


Kare Anderson is a co-founder of the Say it Better Center and author of Getting What You Want and Resolving Conflict Sooner. Previously, she was an Emmy-winning journalist for NBC and for the Wall Street Journal. Follow Kare on Twitter @kareanderson.







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  • What immediately came to mind when I saw your headline was that this exact idea is tackled head on in meditation, that what captures your attention basically controls your consciousness. External distractions and internal worries have the power to seize your attention completely, making you feel overwhelmed. Mindfulness meditation trains you to notice what you’re noticing, first with the exercise of trying to focus on your breath and then noticing what distractions pop into your head; then carrying over that noticing into everyday life to recognize when you’ve gotten sucked into a distraction, stop, and refocus your attention where you want it. It trains you to stay aware of what you’re thinking and feeling so you have the power to choose how to respond, instead of simply reacting to this, and now that, always feeling like you’re in crisis mode.  It’s the basis of self control, frankly. 

  • Absolutely agree with you Lee, from first-hand experience. What a concrete and thus helpful characterization you offer. Thank you Meditation quiets the chattering mind and supports attention and directed action. 

  • Rachel Conine Today 12:53 AM

    We’ve all been on both sides of the fence.  Distracted by something when you have committed to spend a quiet evening, a “catch-up” coffee, or a simple phone conversation with a colleague. How irritating it is when you are in the middle of a conversation and the other person’s eyes focus on their vibrating cell phone . . . . but, hey, wait a minute  . . . . haven’t you done that too? Glanced at a ringing phone to see who it is? Put a family member or good friend on “hold” while you answer another line? Text under the table, thinking no one knows or can see, while you were supposed to be having a romantic dinner?  A few years ago you might have lost your focus for a few seconds while a good looking waiter brought another martini to the table; or let an overhead jet stop a conversation . . . but both were temporary loss of focus. Today, ipods, cell phones, tv, computers, kindle, all take you away to another dimension and away from serious and thought provoking interaction with others. Today our focus in on metal, plastic and circuits. Yesterday it was on smiles, sparking eyes and the voice of our best friend, our lover, or simply another real live human being.

  • How apt to describe what it feels like to be on the receiving end of intermittent attention Rachel, thank you… and for being so vivid about the loss of focus…. and I would add that discontinuity breaks the capacity to go deeper in the conversation… there is a lost opportunity, sometimes to co-create or even an interest in doing so when one feels the other will not make “being present” a top priority. 
    This reminds me of a saying that is something like this: Don’t make someone else a priority when they make you an option.

  • I would never have guessed that cell phones are what attracted the children’s attention.  It just goes to show you that you need to delve deeply into what you observe on the service.  It may totally change a situation around.  Thanks for the insight.

  • Me neither, Gayle yet it seems obvious in retrospect… the experience, especially with such an insightful cultural anthropologist as a colleague on this assignment, has nudged me to observe more, where people literally go when they enter a space, what they talk most intensely and repeatedly about, what scenes and topics cause what changes in facial expressions… and more

  • This article should be given to any parent with kids in school.  Throwing more money at schools will not resolve the ‘education’ problem.  The problem starts at home with parents that are engaged with their children’s learning.  Neither of my parents went to college and my Dad was not the best student, but he was engaged and supported me through school often looking at my books declaring them written in a foreign language (engineering books).   The Disney experience is a small window on a much larger issue.

  • Well put Bill, as others have also said so evocatively, “small window on a much larger issue.”  And engaged parents are key to our learning to be engaged adults…. modeling the behavior that seems second-nature and, in fact, is.

  • Steven L. Frederick Yesterday 01:04 PM

    Kare:  This is a great insightful article.  You touched on (in my opinion) three important issues and woven them into one.  First, children are our future.  When parents take their children on vacation to a place like Disney, they should be focusing on their children.  Magic Johnson mentioned that he was always afraid to go the Disney because of all the attention he would get.  Joe Montana told Magic that he took his son to Disney and was paying more attention to the people “adoring” him, his son finally said, “Dad, you’re either going to be with them or me.”  Joe got the message loud and clear.  Magic took his son to Disney and had a great time based on that advice.  Second, leaders often “dismiss” their staff because they don’t really listen.  If leaders do not really listen to their staff, they may truly miss a “gem” of an idea and an opportunity to strengthen relationships.  And third, ALL relationships take work.  So many times people walk away from “broken” relationships not understanding what happened or “pointing the finger” at someone else.  As you mentioned, we should take a look at ourselves while also turning our focus to others.  Perhaps we can make a difference in someone’s life if we take more time to focus on the positives and work to move forward, not back.  So your overall point is well taken.  If we do not focus on those things that can build strong relationships, we will often find…

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  • Oh I love that Joe Montana story – a keeper… and, like David Brooks, you are describing core character traits that should be timeless. Focus on the positives in a person is how long-time, happy marriages thrive, the so-called Michelangelo Effect: Affirm+support each other’s best side also “sculpts” each other in beneficial ways (helpful for any relationship to thrive): http://www.movingfrommetowe.co…

  • john michal Yesterday 11:54 AM
    This comment was flagged for review.
  • Ah more apparent spam… am hoping HBR can do something about it

  • Fascinating! The most valuable things we can give a child are attention, affection, and time.  If a child is not being paid attention to, it follows that they would be interested in knowing just what is so important.  By being so engrossed in tech ourselves, we’re raising this new generation to think that this is the most important thing – we’re setting this example for them.  What a shame!  I’ll bet Disney is thinking: Let’s make an app for that! lol!

  • Oh Lissa, how apt as all three traits are evident to the receiver, rather than so general they may be true in the mind of the giver. Methinks Disney did use our findings yet did not, of course, choose to disclose how to us. As a company they are more congruent and consistent than many others… and into evolving.

  • Kare, fascinating piece. You’ve got me thinking…and you do have my undivided attention. šŸ™‚

  • Well, then  the core message worked with you and for you Vivek… how cool and thank you for that high compliment

  • It always intrigued me how some folks would literally hover over their gadgets, as if taking them away would rip something from their souls.  In the 80’s and 90’s I remember striking up conversations with complete strangers when finding myself waiting in lines.  Now I have to be a third party to their clicking and conversations with someone not even in the scene.

    As a kid I always marveled at the sci-fi shows of machines taking over the earth in an attempt to control and enslave mankind.  Then we’d beat them back with tanks and bazooka’s.  Yet, no one would have guessed that the real masters had tiny screens and fit in the palm of ones hand.

    As an engineer I can’t help but to observe these behaviors, and I shutter think of where all this going, (The best way to wall in a person is done one brick at a time).

    Perhaps if we paid attention to what were paying attention to…


  •  Good stuff! I am writing about the culture differences in Digital Native
    or Milllenials as those that grew up connected are called.  I also 
    remembered those conversations, because one day between scheduled meetings I took time out.  I had been on-line working a project for days so as I was picking up a few things I actually had a chat with another at the our Trader Joes.  I left realizing that I do not do that anymore. But how much better I felt and that the few hours away from my laptop, Ipad, Phone etc..  felt like a break because I had a conversation about how to make lentil soup.  Not searched for recipes or entered notes in a to do list…  I talked to someone face to face that shared in favoring a certain soup from the store.

    Our environment have changed.  Our modes of communication has changed and part of that is attention.  Attention is the scarcity (Nye talk of paradox of plenty) are all concepts that came to me reading this post.  Thank you for sharing this.

  • That “striking up conversations while waiting in line” example really resonated with me as I, too recall the serendipitous happenings and the feeling of conviviality from such random conversations… they seem to stitch together a sense of connectedness that can happen via a device yet feels much different, in the moment, and face2face

  • Great article. And too many great comments to get through them all in one sitting. I’d love to know what DisneyWorld did with the information you gave them. How did they use it and did it affect the way they worked to develop relationships with their guests? It’s a great example of companies willing to invest in listening. Now, as you say, each of us has to invest our own time in doing the same.

    I also like hearing more scientific substantiation for “the power of positive thinking.” Experience proves it to be true, but for those non-believers, it’s great research.


  • Lisa,
    Two others here did ask what Disney did with our research and they were very clear that they were not going to share those initiatives with us. Re positive thinking, you may be interested in the books, Learned Optimism and Mindset. See http://www.movingfrommetowe.co…
    + a list of some of the books that I have found helpful re connecting with others

  • This comment was flagged for review.
  • “Freelancer” seems to be a persistent spammer here and elsewhere on HBR

  • Thanks, Kare! The comment moderating team is on it.

  • Pwebbdesign 06/08/2012 01:16 PM

    Nice Article


  • Robert Hartness 06/08/2012 01:03 PM


    Karen, I’m wondering why you seemed to twist the Disney
    brief away from the Disney gadgets, rides, characters, magical themes etc., and
    focussed your report on th relationship between the children and their parents.
    Did you inadvertently skew your results by giving your attention to your own
    implicit, perhaps subconscious priorities based on your line of work?


    Surely, the children must have been engrossed by “all the
    fun of the fair” – they’d be odd kids if they weren’t. Sometimes, I think we do
    well to deliberately swing our attentions away from our passions and driving
    forces, otherwise we become boring people living between tramlines. Yes, I
    agree that if you want to succeed as an entrepreneur, for example you throw the
    TV out of the window, but let’s also remember there must be room for reflecting,
    meditating and reviewing our approach to life.


    Only by knowing ourselves, can we hope to cement good
    relationships with others. Only by allowing distractions into our behaviour can
    we feed the inventive spirit, which depends on lateral thinking more than on
    paranoidnal worries about how we distribute our attention among the myriad
    tasks of everyday living. So, thank you Karen for a thought-provoking article.
    It distracted me from whatever the heck I was doing!


  • Robert, Since the goal of the assignment was to see what most held the attention of the infants & toddlers we were simply observers of the scenes at Disney, not commentators. I agree that one’s subconscious can shape perceptions yet in this case we were literally watching what most held their attention. This is not about “succeeding as an entrepreneur” yet rather noticing actual behavior. ~ Kare

  • Unfortunately we all too often respond to calls on our limited attention by fragmenting it. This in spite of research that shows that we can’t actually multi-task, we can only flip back and forth among tasks n micro-movements, losing a bit of attention, energy, and connection with each flip. 

    One response to this cultural/societal ADD is Les Fehmi’s The Open Focus Brain. His book and the practice he has developed point to four styles of attention: narrow and objective, narrow and immersed, diffuse and objective, diffuse and immersed. Open Focus practice develops attentional flexibility so that we can attend in a more spacious and relational way without the tunnel vision of fight or flight patterns and preoccupation with what I would call “attention sinks.” I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in how we pay attention.

  • Fragmenting attention is an apt and visual image of it Molly, thank you.Thank you for that book rec. I am going to look it up

  • To give someone the gift out your attention, you must be fully present. I use the mantra: “Wherever my feet are, my head is.” This keeps me completely focused on the moment. No mental drifting. LISTEN & SILENT are have the same letters in a different order. Close your mouth and open your heart..

  • That’s helpful Susan, thank you. For me, it is often where my eye look. What wonderful phrases as reminders…. out of our silence can come considerable communication

  • Great post Kare. You really show the importance of the emotional need 
    for attention (caring) that not only kids have with their parents, but 
    that we all have with those we interact with. Critical to know that to 
    communicate effectively at all levels. I often say “People buy on 
    emotion and justify with fact,” and this is another example. Loved the 
    implications for all of us in using our smart phones sparingly in 

  • alpha_protagonist 06/08/2012 11:09 AM

    The circle of strife:

    If you’re talking, you’re not listening. If you’re not listening, you’re not learning. If you’re not learning, you’re not growing. If you’re not growing, you have nothing to offer. If you have nothing to offer, you have no business talking…

  • Thank you for your wonderful insight! Someone said we are “war with über stimulation” and a “wealth of information creates a poverty of attention (Tony Schwartz).” Sometimes the focal point becomes more apparent when stopping the distraction that dominate our lives today. A professional photographer had a case in point: you eyes can only concentrate on one point at a time and so when editing or framing the photo, he would “blur the noise” and ensure our eyes focused on what he wanted us to see. Thank you again for a much needed article!

  • Sam
    How pithy, idea-packed and poetic your language is. I have copied the whole thing and pasted it in my folder to keep for future fodder in my writing, citing you….Thank you so much

  • The point about not just focusing on yourself is especially poignant here, Kare. As you sugggest, most of effective communication is listening. And listening and hearing are two distinctly different things. Companies, for instance, are developing very comprehensive hearing: monitoring what people are saying about them; surveying them at every step; etc. But hearing and listening aren’t the same thing. (Ask my wife: she often says that I’ve heard her but I’m not really listening.) Hearing is the act of physically receiving a noise; listening is the active process of processing and trying to understand. And most of that hearing is only dedicated to what people say about them; which surely is a very limited part of what we can learn from others.Most limited of all, though, is our ability to empathize. Parents have that limitation–it’s safe to say that most of us who have children don’t spend enough time thinking about the world from their perspective. And this is especially true of business professionals. When we communicate to audiences (as individuals and as a company), we think about everything we want to tell the audience and often not as much about what the audience wants and needs to hear. We’ve been challenging ourselves at Peppercom over the past year or so to consider the “audience experience” at every juncture…to apply design thinking concepts as has been done in user experience testing, or customer service, or product design to communications. It sounds so commonsense, yet it’s sadly not been…

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  • Thanks for the kind words (above), Kare. For those interested in a bit more on the subject, see Reports Of Design Thinking’s Death Were An Exaggeration and Put the Humanity Back in Communications.

  • Kris Schaeffer 06/08/2012 01:49 AM

    Great ideas for being connected and respected. The more I listen, the more I’m heard. Leaders model the way and demonstrate the empathy and attention we all crave. Don’t show how smart you are by talking. Show how wise you are by listening.

  • Kris
    I wish it was always true, yet few things are… we are certainly more likely to be heard when we listen closely… some are so starved for attention that they fall into a habit of hungrily talking to someone who is thoughtfully listening…. that, in no way, means that we should stop honing our capacity to listen deeply. 

    For me, it is to be grateful for healthy friendships and interactions where all involved are ardently seeking to carry a thread to the conversation, listening and speaking their hearts and minds.

  • Hi Kare, thanks for sharing your thought. From the massive volume of the comments, I was re-assured that many people are nodding on this current emerging problem.
    I am not sure if people in east asian region have strong focus on relationship,  but you will be probably surprised when you see so many people are looking at smartphone in subway in Japan.Here is google image search result for subway and smartphone :- ) http://bit.ly/MOPqYN

    I think we should have movie screening like these at class, local community center, or even in board room šŸ™‚ http://connectedthefilm.com/ht…, from Tokyo

  • Fascinating Hichikawa… part of globalization and the spread of devices, with universal instincts to be in touch making us all morph increasingly similar behaviors and ways of viewing scenes, including our sense of individual vs collective action

  • This is a wonderful article on so many levels. I am an artist, teacher, and father. When I am working the phone is on silent and I will check it between classes or if I know something important is going on I will place it where I can see it light up. When i am with mu children, the phone is in the car or in my bag. My family constantly complains that I am not reachable, or that I am ignpring them. Of course I try to explain that I am in the buisness of personal communication, I stand in front of people and engage with them for a living, either on the stage or in the class room, or on a playground. 
    We need to realize that though we are capable if constant electronic communication, and of course there is a greay many benefits to it, we have to find the balance. Unplug!

  • I like that concrete habit Wahauns and appreciate your citing it, especially considering the nature of your work, a very public stand as to what you mean by personal communication… yes the nub of it all is in the balance and how we consciously choose to make daily and situational habits of finding it for our lifestyle and beliefs.

  • These are very astute observations by Kare.  There was a remark about enthralled consumers’ adoption of television sets in the 1950s: “People didn’t seem to know that you could turn them off.”  With the continuing expansion of capabilities and the proliferation of apps, the mobile device can sustain its power to rivet attention.  As a result, consumers may be slower to mature as users than their 1950s predecessors, who eventually learned to pull themselves away from the tube at intervals. 

  • Ye,s Rober, the power of the screens in our life did start with that, and thanks for alluding to the path that TV started us on… so many times the lives portrayed on the screens and the ideas seem more enticing than what seems to be happening right around us… so we opt for it rather than for entertaining ourselves, with other nearby. And yet I see people creating inventive ways to learn about what is around them, play with their friends, F2F, using the devices… this will be a continuing, unfolding spread of choices… yet we are lucky to have the choices… where we put our attention, by choice

  • I have to ask because I was quite curious..lol. What did Disney do when they found out that kids were paying attention to mobiles mostly?

  • Marco, you are the second person to ask this apt question…. Disney  made it clear that they were not going to share those ideas with us. They did do a series of experiments and used employees as observers to note what was working best, we found out serendipitously.. yet we could not find out the details…. would love to know

  • Kare, you make a great point about children who are captivated by their parents using cell phones amidst the lights, food, and other attractions. In fact, we adults are no different in that cell phones are just as captivating to us as to the children watching us.  Today, cell phones take the attention of not only adults, but children, teens, and now trending senior citizens.  In my personal life I can honestly say that in 2012, I yet to have a full uninterrupted conversation where the other person did not pull open their phone during the meeting.  It’s difficult to find those who give 100% undivided attention and listen attentively, but those who do possess the discipline- the more greater of a leader they will become.  Great article Kare!

  • Wow… yet to have… perhaps you may want to share your concern with one or two of the people who most matter to you, and gently request uninterrupted time Daniel…. I had to work up my nerve to do that with one very important person in my life and we worked out a middle ground… times that we do not turn to our screens…. I mentioned to someone else that this is a growing trend. Tiffany Schlain, for example, and her family, have one day each week as a vacation from machines.

  • Jane Pollak 06/07/2012 08:13 PM

    When my kids were little, a mother I admired mentioned a quote: “Time is the currency of caring.” By the time my third child was two, I’d run out of patience, and I had to face the consequences of that neglect. Fortunately, I was able to realize that she needed face time from me. So I made the decision to very consciously spend eyeball-to-eyeball time  with her. That was 25 years ago. I was heading in the wrong direction. I hope parents with young children will read this and take it to heart.

    Yes, it’s important in business, of course, but what happens in our families ultimately effects our world even more.

  • Currency of caring is a compelling characterization Jane, and a keeper I am going to post on my study wall with other reminders… 

  • This has really made me think about where my attention (so easily) goes at times… and i must say, i am amazed at the level of comment response Kare – great focus there!

  • Simon… methinks we are in an increasingly transient culture, with more people living and working on their own, so we have the conflicting desires to be connected more of the time and sometimes make choices, when face2face that take away from a deeper connection

  • There a Zen Buddhist story that your article brought to mind.  The story concerns an earnest student who comes to a master and asks for the highest and most secret teaching. The master quickly picks up his brush, dips it in the ink and
    writes the word “Attention.” Not happy with this answer, the student 
    presses for a deeper teaching. The master takes up the brush 
    again and writes “Attention. Attention.” The student is unimpressed. ‘If you are a master, you should be able to give me more 
    than that,’ he says. So the master sighs, and then he writes “Attention.
    Attention. Attention.”

    As a lifelong student of Zen I have often been complimented on my ability to listen – to pay attention. Now I realize what a gift it is to give someone. Thanks for the post Kare.

  • You are farther along on this path of attention David, from your description here… for me it  remains an area where i need to be more mindful… and being around folks who truly are, feeling bathed in the warm of observing their full attention — toward me or another person – is so nourishing it moves me to be more diligent…. as does observing the opposite behavior.
    Your comments reminded me of this famous  awareness test from Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris (www.theinvisiblegorilla.com)

  • Comment removed.
  • oh you have great taste Writetodeepakhatt šŸ™‚

  • Great post Kare. You really show the importance of the emotional need for attention (caring) that not only kids have with their parents, but that we all have with those we interact with. Critical to know that to communicate effectively at all levels. I often say “People buy on emotion and justify with fact,” and this is another example. Loved the implications for all of us in using our smart phones sparingly in public!

  • Caring and listening is instinctive yet I truly believe can deepen, with attention to it… so your comments Bert and the ones below are both apt… we are only human and must also find ways to forgive others distraction and lead by example perhaps… I am such a fan of the way you do that Bert


    Right Bert. But
    I’d like to note a dissonance about caring or ‘listening’ that
    present only externally. ‘Listening’, like ‘tasting’, isn’t something
    we do. It’s something we experience. Because all of our sensing is
    receptive, the acts of ‘looking intently at a speaker’ or ‘nodding in
    agreement’ are just that: acts that have less to do with
    you-the-speaker and are really all about me.

    It’s when I’m
    connected with my environment and able to ‘listen’ to and from my own
    Self that I can really ‘hear’—that is, take in and sense what’s
    between and under the language of the speaker or the other actor.
    Some call this gut instinct; others refer to it as intuition. And
    it’s what the DisneyWorld children relied on when sensing that
    something was missing in their interaction with parents.

    Who knew that a
    phone could manifest more Presence than another human? 

  • Right and who could have predicted that devices would become so quickly a part of our lives?

  • Very poignant article.  It reminds me of my mother who has a keen awareness of when I am on the phone with her, and whether or not I am simultaneously working on my computer.  I never say anything, but she will usually call me out on my actions.  

    I think that our society is quickly loosing the ability to be physically present and attentive with all the things that can grab our attention.  Not sure what is the best way to counteract this trend as technology seems to continue to find ways to replace face-to-face interaction with technology-to-technology.  

  • Wow Beth… I have a close friends who knows when i am not giving complete attention, even by phone… i guess we should be grateful to be so in sync with someone.. .and it am.. Marco and others have done studies on this effect

  • I have some new insights to report. Daydreaming. We let our wander
    forty-seven per cent of the time we’re awake awake. according to a recent study
    by Harvard psychologists Daniel Gilbert (Stumbling on Happiness author) and
    Matthew A. Killingsworth: A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind: http://www.sciencemag.org/cont…


    You can probably guess the only time
    that we aren’t (yet I somehow suspect, even then, some do) … when we are making


    Yet, despite my outlining some of the downsides
    of being distracted, there are several upsides including one cited by Jonah
    Lehrer: “whenever we are slightly bored—when reality isn’t quite enough for
    us—we begin exploring our own associations, contemplating counterfactuals and
    fictive scenarios that only exist within the head.”



  • Great article Kare, thank you for posting.

    It is relevant in all aspects of one’s life.  You mention, as a leader, the messaging you send to your team in terms of where you focus and how that will shape the team’s behavior.   Interpersonally it makes a statement on your priorities in life.  To place a text message above a conversation with your spouse, your loved one or your children presents a hierarchy of what’s important to you and where they fit in to that hierarchy.  Additionally responding immediately to all of the stimuli that surrounds us eventually isolates us.   We lose the opportunity to enjoy the moment, to appreciate our surroundings and to learn from our surroundings.   About 18 months ago I was returning from Dubai and had an overnite layover in NYC.   I brought my camera on to 5th Avenue, not knowing what I wanted to shoot.   It quickly became apparent to me what my theme for that shoot would be (which I eventually posted on FB). 


    The people in these pictures are all intently focused on their call, but seem very disconnected to the environment around them.   In many cases I was within 2 or 3 feet snapping picutures of their face and they did not even notice me. 

    About a year ago, I made the decision to disconnect myself, at least for part of my day (my evenings), from the tether of mobile phones, internet and television so that I could better experience the world around me.   It was a great decision, but, what it also amplified to me, is just how addicted we have become to being “connected”.

    You mentioned Disney and, having been to DisneyWorld and DisneyLand with my children many years ago, I thought I would share an observation I had of their major rides.   Each of these rides started off by taking you through 20 seconds of darkness before springing the excitement of the ride upon you.   Although it was only 20 seconds, it was consistent with all of their major rides.  I assumed they did this to try and eliminate, for a moment at least, all the sensory stimulators so that when the ride sprung upon you, your focus was entirely on the ride.   I do not know if this was their true intent, but it seemed effective.   My point is that we are now bombarded with digital stimuli coming at us from all directions to the point where we becoming numb to our world.

    Once again, thank you for sharing your thoughts.


  • You hit on one of my hot button Jim and what an interesting way to discover that preoccupation.  Re taking photos while in an experience, I am of two minds… wondering if we savor and remember more or less than if we just stayed involved with what was happening in the moment.

  • When I went to my daughter’s spring concert this year, I was almost blinded by the flashes and trampled by the snapshotting moms vying for the best angle. Those kids rehearsed and agonized over that performance for weeks, and I don’t think they were being honored by having their efforts reduced to a photo on facebook for  “friends”, shots that will be forgotten in the avalanche of images of other life events those “sharing” them were not participating in.

    Again, there is something underlying this behavior that we cannot just lay easy blame on “technology” or “too many distractions” to understand. We buy the technology, no one forces us to, and we sign on for all the sources of the distractions with our eyes wide open to the results in advance. Why? What is this fear of the moment that propels this conduct?

    That’s where I think the scrutiny is needed. What is so dreadful about here, now and present company? All this commiserating about how hard it is to manage misses the whole point: why did we turn our lives over to these gadgets to begin with?

  • This is definitely true. To selectively concentrate on that one thing and just ignore the other things around you would surely make one more effective. Science prove it that not only does multitasking make our work 50% less valuable; it takes 50% longer to finish. (We have been setting up a network of professional advisors for a few years now with the intention of providing support and guidance to entrepreneurs and small business worldwide. We specialize in making connections between those who need help and those who can help.)

  • I did not know that stat, thanks. How do you help those in network reduce the habit?

  • Congratulations Kare for the article and the posts.
    It touches the nerve of the leadership. The context of the child is aptly quoted. As adults, we are the products of our upbringing. The way we are treated in childhood, we pick them up fairly quickly. The thoughts and actions penetrate deep inside us and throughout our lives we emit actions on similar frequencies. If the leader gives positive vibes through words and actions, the subordinate gets developed in the process. This increases the probability of a healthy environment at the workplace. 

  • So true Charu. As our capacity to study the brain and behavior has increased via advances in tech we are becoming more aware of how early and pervasive that imprint is. It affects, not only leadership but liking, hot buttons and more… nature/nurture … yet we also now know we can re-wired our brains. 

    One of my fav early books on that was by Norman Doidge: How the Brain Changes Itself.
    I wrote about that book here: http://www.movingfrommetowe.co…

    … and here

  • the second post about Doidge’s book: Be More Valuable By Increasing Your Mental Ambidexterity http://www.movingfrommetowe.co…

  • Terrific post, Kare!

    It would be fascinating to see if there is a clear linkage between the challenges we face in focusing our attention and the difficulties we seem to have in “connecting the dots” to see the deeper interrelatedness between “things”.

    Seems to me that both of those skills are going to be increasingly critical to our success in what many are referring to as the Creative Age.

  • I would love to see the results of such a study yet think it might be difficult to design it to account for all the other variables, Jim. 

    Relatedly ,you might enjoy the book, Situations Matter, which points out how much context influences our perceptions, emotions and behavior 


    Great post Kare.   Our distractedness in relationships is perhaps
    the most obvious and annoying aspect of our constantly shifting
    attention.  I think we are also damaging our ability to learn and to think
    deeply about things. 


    By constantly interrupting myself with email, messages,
    news, anything online/real time, I can barely read for more than a few minutes
    at a time.   I miss taking the time learn
    and to understand something new in depth. 
    Many of the things that I’m attending to instead are just bits of
    information that don’t really add value to my life.. 


    I recently read that you can retrain yourself to focus by
    reading so I’m trying it.  What a pleasure — hiding from my gadgets with
    a good (paper) book.


  • Sounds like a lovely excuse for avid readers to indulge themselves VhLarner :-)… so I thank you for that!

  • Undivided Attention, a very interesting concept. Kind of like Common Sense. Both are increasingly scarce.

  • That could be Fish, shapes how we see the world and our choices is certainly different today than even five years ago 

  • Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Excuse me, hold on, I have to take this. Jus-sec’.


    OK, What were you saying?

    Undivided attention. Right.

    Is there a link for that?

  • I,Borg… many links to our distractions … šŸ™‚ sure gets us out of opportunities for the feeling of “flow” when we lose ourselves in an interest we love, or to hone a core talent with repeated practice… distraction is a time sink

  • What I was getting at was this new protocol that everyone seems to accept about cell phones: that we answer every call immediately. As I remember, when mobile phones first emerged they were seen as elitist, pretentious and disruptive. Comedians made routines around people who could not (read “would not”) keep their focus on the here and now every time their eighteen-ounce toy rang. Now, the cell phone is an immediate and guaranteed way out of whatever is going on right in front of us, and I think people like it that way.

    High-tech has always worked because it is “cool”, not because it is necessary or an improved way of doing things. The point is, I feel people (including those folks at Disneyland) take every call immediately because they want to, because something makes them uncomfortable about treating those closest to them as a priority. The message to the kids that something else is more important than them is a CHOICE, and the reasons for treating people that way are not to be found in studies of connectivity, but in seeing connectivity as an immediate relief, which everyone seems to need desperately every moment, from truly connecting.

    Remember the last time you tried to give directions or a detailed explanation, or just tell a story, in person? How long before the eyes started to wander and people started to squirm? Fifteen seconds? Twenty?

    Maybe what you should be looking for is not WHAT captures our…

    show more

  • Great article. I think this such a wonderful insight. There are so many distractions for us it is hard to imagine that we are not present when we are standing right there, but that is too often the case. I love the suggested exercise of just stopping and listening to someone else. There is absolutely no downside to focusing our attention. For anyone who tries that they might want to take that experience a step further. Suzuki Roshi called that Monkey Mind, and suggested sitting in quite meditation as a way to help settle the brain and become more aware at how our attention jumps from place to place. He has a classic lecture on this that anyone interested can read more about here http://www.berkeleyzencenter.o….

  • Steve
    I have long felt that Monkey Mind was an apt description of my mind sometime

  • “”Paying attention is a kind of social cement.” — Love the metaphor and fantastic, thoughtful post.

  • In an age of social media it is important not to lose sight of the importance of personal interactions. Nicely said in the post Kare.

  • Insightful post, Kare! I really enjoyed it. What we pay attention to absolutely defines us, and it’s all to easy to spend time paying attention to things that don’t matter. 

  • To even begin to recognize how much we are defined by our choices is a nudge towards awareness to slow down and make more conscious choices perhaps Garry

  •  Kare, paying attention = mindfulness = self-awareness. And since no man is an island, it also = social relationships & how we connect to others. Cell phones, love them or hate them, are not the only curse of modern living. Inattention to someone talking to you or a cavalier attitude to disturbing the peace of others by talking louder than necessary is also rampant. I often feel like saying something to the offending party, yet stop the thought of doing so. Yet when I remember the saying, “All it takes for evil to occur is for good men to say nothing”, then I get prompted to act. Great article, great insight, thanks for the prod!

  • Oh how timely Ricky… writing about attitude as well as attention as a way to fray an experience and a relationship

  • Great article… You are absolutely right that we can retrain our brains to have different responses…. Many of us think that we are inherently pessimistic or optimistic , but this is not true… While we may have early experiences which predispose us to one outlook or another, we also have choices…. Taking the effort to be one more self-aware is such a key first step in being able to exercise choice

    Thanks Kare for a thoughtful and insightful article

  • And Tessa, we are just on the edge of the new frontier of how we can re-wired our brain… exciting times, for good and for ill

  • Kare, A thought provoking article. Interesting observation: our 1.5 year old granddaughter often overlooks all the toys available to her and prefers to play with an old TV remote, which she thinks is a cell phone.

  • Sharyn, just like i and many other kids growing up preferred to play in the big boxes than with the stuff that came in them….bet you are enjoying playing with your granddaughter… and feeling more connected when you do

  • Very insightful…if only I could get my partners to read it!!

  • You might model the behavior enough that they might comment and then say how you came to think of this altered behavior….or send them a link. In any situation we always have 3 choices, change how we act, accept the situation… or leave… i remind myself

  • I like how you sum it up here. I’m going to use some of this, and share it with my 7th graders next year – I think if we let them know this information, they might pay more attention to what they decide to pay attention to!

  • Now if you can get 7th graders attention you are a better involver than me. Kudos to you Joykirr šŸ™‚

  • This comment was flagged for review.
  • Sounds like we have a distracting spammer with these 2 comments… did it raise the hackles of anyone else here?…. speaking of attention…

  • And so tell me, what is Disney doing to get the kids attention away from their parent’s cell phones?  

  • A very big question Baruchatta and i am surprised that you are the first to ask it here.  They chose not to tell us… not a surprise I guess

  • When the parents see the day at disney as an opportunity to connect with the kids, when they see it as an opportunity to ‘guide’ the kids, the cell phones will be kept away. When the parents see the day at disney as a ‘chore’ and the cell phone as an instrument of opportunity, the parents will be glued to the cell phones.
    In a funny way, without hurting the ego of parents, if parents who DO NOT USE the cell phones in ‘the day at disney’ can be pampered, it will send the right message across to one and all.

    Having said this, dear Kare, this is an incredible article that you have written. Many thanks for the efforts. 
    God bless…

  • Disney (and anyone else who cares about what kids pay attention to) should be trying to get the PARENTS to pay less attention to their cell phones. Then the kids will tune in to what the parents are tuned in to!

  • right Grace… and it would be fun to share ways we stayed involved… eye contact, touch, encouraging “even” the very young to make up games  to entertain themselves, involve us…. I prefer that to passive entertainment… how about others here?

  • Watching thoughts is the basis of Cognitive Therapy.  Thinking good thoughts is the basis of why Peter Pan could fly.  If only we could! Think good thoughts that is. 

  • Being a great listener is not easy to do. For some reason, I was blessed with this skill. I guess that’s what led me to becoming an executive coach.

    Smartphones are here to stay. Though there’s a time and place for them. When you’re in convo with someone, turn off the phone and put it out of sight. If you look at your phone during any point of the convo you’re basically saying to the other person they’re irrelevant.

    Great post Kare.

  • Steve… what are the signs to others that you are a good listener and what behaviors in those you are around demonstrate to you that they know you are listening?

  • Signs? I give them the space to say what’s on their mind. I listen at a deeper level and not just what’s on the surface.

    What behaviors they demonstrate that I’m a great listener? Here’s just a few. They speak to me three times a month for an average of two years. We talk about their business and what they really want to create and I see them build it. Another sign is they’ll say something like “I’m not sure why I’m telling you this.” Or “I’ve never told this to anyone before.” My clients tell me things nobody else will ever hear. Why? I really care and believe in my clients.

  • If I were a cellphone company, I’d be delighted with your observations.  Fascinating insight, as usual.  Thanks Kare.

  • Lucky cell phone, the center of so much attention… they may turn self-centered, eh Carol?

  • Great article. Attention is our brain’s greatest resource and it’s the one we are least aware of. I used to pride myself in multi-tasking but have now gone the other way and am trying to get better at mono-tasking. What we think is multi-tasking is really task-switching because your attention can only be on one thing at any time. The problem is technology is so wired to notify us of every small event that all these interruptions make it really hard. Working on a project now with AwayFind that will hopefully help people tamper their interruptions, but technology is an evolving beast, so gotta stay sharp to keep shaping the brain you want.

  • Kare, very well framed and persuasive article.  It’s so important to listen, and to see clearly what is around you.  It’s such a simple concept but so challenging in practice.

  • Lisa.. sure has been challenging for me and perhaps that is one of the reason I write about it.. .since writing this column I have become even more aware of my lapses and of others who seem to focus well in the situation and how well they are received… a nudge for me to improve

  • Lisa, I agree with your last comment!  It is quite challenging!  Kare’s focus on attention has a dual purpose.  We automatically tend to repurpose what others are saying into our own terms and frame of reference.  Although we’re paying attention, we’ve lost the comprehension of what is being said as it relates to the speaker.  The first thing to do is focus your attention on what the speaker is saying as it relates to them and truly understand what they are saying before focusing on how what has been said applies to you.  It’s this duality of attention that provides the “social cement” Kare speaks of.

  • Oh Eric I love that social cement…. mixing metaphors I also see them akin to synthesizer-style leaders who are the glue that holds a group together

  • We all want to know that someone is paying attention to us.  This is a great post, Kare.  Thanks for sharing with me!

  • Regrettably that may be why so many get addicted to the cell phone in the first place. Every time the phone rings or vibrates with a text, it means someone is paying attention to us. We should all be fulfilled with who is with is at any given time, but that does not always seem to be the case.

  • This may sound strange yet it is so obvious once i read that Jobyg… it makes absolute senses… than you for adding a fresh insight…. then my nudge must be to remind myself of that effect when I start to answer and, instead lean into the conversation at hand

  • Colleen Clarke 06/06/2012 01:20 PM

    As a speaker I am very aware when attendees are getting antsy or totally engrossed when I am presenting. Ten minutes into a presentation it has been suggested that you stop the session and tell everyone in the classroom to take a minute to check their messages as “I understand you are probably going through withdrawal at this time.” Interestingly enough, few actually check. I believe that just knowing that they had permission to do so relieved the pressure of needing to check, ergo, they are ok not checking, now and I can get on with my session.

  • Once we get to know what holds our attention; object based or relationship based, then what does it say about us?  What does it imply for our personality? Or our relationship with others? How does it affect our professional life positively or negatively and what can we do about it?

  • joeraimondo 06/06/2012 01:13 PM

    This article certainly contributes to the growing “meta-attention” on attention and the necessity for everyone to develop new modalities of managing this precious resource.I’d like to recommend Howard Rheingold’s new book “Net Smart.” In it, he discusses his invention of the term “infotention”, which he describes as “a word I came up with to describe the psycho-social-techno skill/tools we all need to find our way online today, a mind-machine combination of brain-powered attention skills with computer-powered information filters.” The book provides both a deep context for bringing consciousness and meta-awareness to refining our attention as well as exploring specific tools and approaches for developing a more elegant and personalized interface with the informational environment with face.

  • Val Swisher 06/06/2012 01:13 PM

    Kare – I must admit, when I first started reading your article, I felt a very deep pang of guilt. How many times I have been with my (now grown) children and taken a business call, answered an email, responded to a text? More than I care to admit. And, how often do I get annoyed with them when they text at the dinner table, in the car, in a restaurant? All the time.

    What a stingy truth this is, not just about parenting, but about all interactions that we have. It is so important to “be present” with the people who you are with. This is true in person and also electronically. How often have I sent emails while participating on a conference call? Again…more often than I care to admit. Last year, I had a New Year’s resolution to not read or send email when I was on the phone. To accomplish this goal, I literally had to change the direction of my chair, so I was not able to see my computer screen.

    There are many studies that show that humans really don’t multitask. Instead, we slice time – because in reality, we actually only do ONE thing at a time, we just time slice lots of things in succession. Being present, attending to the task or person or project at hand, is so critical. Thanks for reminding all of us. Oh, and no texting while driving, either. šŸ˜‰

  • Thanks Kare! Loved your notion that: “Consciously changing what you pay attention to can rewire your brain from a negative orientation to a positive one. “Attention shapes the brain,” as Rick Hanson says in Buddha’s Brain.”

    Thanks also for the way you model that focus and attention to include others and to foster talents! Lots to think about here for those who care about mindfulness – as a way to navigate to sustainable wins! Stay blessed! Ellen Weber (Brainleadersandlearners)

  • K. G. Endicott 06/06/2012 12:15 PM

    Insightful and interesting article.  Like Malcolm Gladwell, Kare Anderson is one of our more perceptive observers of contemporary life.

  • CBA SPEAKERS BUREAU 06/06/2012 12:14 PM

    So very true!!  In
    this busy, high-tech world of connectivity our cell phones are often glued to
    our hands, email pop-ups every few seconds and social media often replaces the
    simple phone call.   Our attention spans
    are getting shorter and spread thin  and  even though we may think we are getting more
    done, are we?


    With so many things vying for our attention we often try to
    attend to everything and end up not doing any one thing as good as we could had
    we paid full attention. 


    Great example was the most productive business meeting where
    everyone, except the moderator, left their computer and cell phone outside the
    room.  A one hour meeting, when you have
    everyone’s undivided attentions only need to take 15-30 minutes!


    Great article, thank you for sharing your keen insights with
    us Kare!!

  • CBA SPEAKERS BUREAU 06/06/2012 12:12 PM

    [8:34:11 AM] Allison Saldana: So very true!!  In this busy, high-tech world of connectivity our cell phones are often glued to our hands, email pop-ups every few seconds and social media often replaces the simple phone call.   Our attention spans are getting shorter and spread thin  and  even though we may think we are getting more done, are we?

    With so many things vying for our attention we often try to attend to everything and end up not doing any one thing as good as we could had we paid full attention.  

    Great example was the most productive business meeting where everyone, except the moderator, left their computer and cell phone outside the room.  A one hour meeting, when you have everyone’s undivided attentions only need to take 15-30 minutes! 

    Great article, thank you for sharing your keen insights with us Kare!!

  • Cindy Burrell 06/06/2012 11:32 AM

    Kare, Here are the thoughts that came to mind for me.  Americans are action oriented and results oriented.  Those are strengths, yet often your strengths can be weaknesses in other situations–like developing relationships!  Meaningful business relationships do not happen instantly.  They take time.  Sometimes we are so busy “making things happen” that we forget that we need to concentrate on the person in front of us and focus on listening and truly developing a relationship. So thank you for the important “reminder” for all of us: 
    Giving undivided attention is the first and most basic ingredient in any relationship.  The moral: you can sometimes move faster–if you simply slow down and focus.
    Cindy Burrell, Diversity in Boardrooms

  • Smallbiztrends 06/06/2012 11:21 AM

    Thanks, Kare, for a great reminder of how important it is to know where you focus your attention as a leader.  It reminds me of the old saying (forget who first used it) that as a leader you should “inspect what you expect.”  Because if you’re not inspecting it, your team assumes it isn’t important.

    – Anita

  • Julia Nufer, Ph.D. 06/06/2012 11:14 AM

    Great article, Kare – this article, and the comments, remind me of that saying about watching your thoughts…because eventually they dictate your character and destiny.  Same message Doris cites.  And this is a great example of how change comes about in the world – look at Andy’s response – your article has affected his 2 yr old’s life! 

  •  This is one of the best articles I’ve read in a very long time. Thank you for sharing your brilliance in writing.

  • Couldn’t agree more. Quite surprising results and very interesting. I really like the part where we have the power to control how our brain develops – that we can rewire it from negative orientation to a positive one. Very empowering!

  • Deborah, i am so touched that it resonates for you, and hope it helps you in your life… writing it has been clarifying for me

  • Thanks Kare for a brilliantly written reminder that my wife and 2-year-old are far more important than my cell phone.

    I really dug the info on the differences between East and West in regard to relationship vs object-groupings. Wow.

    Thanks again. I have already and will continue to pass this along.

  • Doris Bersing 06/06/2012 10:25 AM

    Very eye-opening article. It made me remember Thomas Troward, who was a strong influence in the New Thought Movement, who
    claimed that thought precedes physical form and that “the action of 
    Mind plants that nucleus which, if allowed to grow undisturbed, will 
    eventually attract to itself all the conditions necessary for its 
    manifestation in outward visible form. Kare reminds us of the law of attraction as well where “like attracts like”and that by focusing on positive or negative thoughts, one can bring about positive or negative results.
    Thank you Kare…for sure I will stop text-messaging during my dinners (romantic ones or no romantics šŸ™‚

  • Susan Keller 06/06/2012 10:19 AM

    A much-needed reminder in business and in our personal lives. Paying complete attention is so simple and yet so profound. It takes mental muscles that many of us may have allowed to get slack. Thanks Kare for exploring this crucial bit of human interaction that applies to us all. 

  • Great article. Seems to me that part of the problem is we’re simply doing too much – trying to stay in touch with too many people, and stay on top of too many things, and accomplish too many tasks in one day. I have a new (heavenly) job, and for the first time in six years I have no direct reports. Being new here, and with no supervision responsibilities, I’m not overwhelmed with email. As the VP of a large national organization with 140 staff, I spend a fair amount of time each day thinking, reading, and planning, uninterrupted. Can such a thing be possible longterm? I wonder. I have never been so productive, and have never felt so focused or happy – and it’s largely because I feel ABLE and FREE to pay attention to a few things, rather than a zillion things. I can almost feel my brain relaxing. It’s like a brain massage.

  • How apt of you mariah yet methinks some others might have entered that same role and busied themselves up with stuff to do rather than choosing to go deep, considering what is truly best for the organization, and how…. sounds like you embody that to which i aspire on this path of clarity, honing top strengths, and working and play with others in ways we use our best talents together to accomplish greater things than we could on our own.

  • Congratulations Mariah on landing the much sought after ‘heavenly’ job.  I increasingly believe that to function at my best and to be truly creative I need the space to ‘think, read and plan uninterrupted’.  As to whether it’s possible long term the answer probably lies in the importance placed culturally by your organisation on real quality outcomes.  If this isn’t already the case then perhaps as the new VP of your organisation you can influence it to be so.  Long may your focus and productivity continue!  I’d be really interested to hear how this works out for you.

  • Well-said Mairi… a heavenly  job and taking the care to consider big shifts rather than filling work with stuff

  • This does ring true for me. We are largely controlled by what we pay attention to externally as well as what trains of thought occupy us on an ongoing basis. These habits can be extremely hard to break–as you note in your article, they literally get wired into our brains (or myelinated, as the case may be :-)).I’m currently reading “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, which is an in-depth discussion of the state-of-the-art thinking on how cognition and the brain works. He points out that attention self-reinforcing (what we attend to becomes important and familiar, thus reinforcing our tendency to pay attention to it). More troublesome is that we have extremely limited attention capacity. So if you hardwire yourself to attend to, say, the financial markets, you’ll miss other things in your environment that might be more important. The very act of choosing what to attend to and what not to needs to be conscious and deliberate if you want to shape your life.

  • Andy Grieser 06/06/2012 09:36 AM

    Such great timing: Just last night, I (and I am ashamed to admit this) turned on my 2-year-old’s favorite movie so I could do some work. The kiddo stopped watching Nemo and instead wanted nothing more than to do what I was doing. I turned off both the television and the laptop so we could play blocks together, redirecting that attention. Thanks to you, I know to monitor myself and apply that attentive mindset to the working world.

  • So everything in our boils down to one simple thing “our attention”

  • Paul D’Souza 06/06/2012 08:38 AM

    Love the article.  A great reminder for a simple but powerful practice to help us have more meaningful connections and conversations.  I have found myself “parallel processing” if you would – way too many times and really only to the people I care about the most. How dreadful.  Thanks for this reminder Kare. Love your work.

  • Thank you–excellent piece.  As I started to read it, I also picked up the BlackBerry that chimed and flipped over to the Twitter tab that was open.  Realizing the irony, I refocused and read the whole article through.  I’m glad I did.  I have felt keenly the need for balance and boundaries over the years, but lately have experienced some creepage as a new business owner, and my sons do notice.  Most of us are doing all that we do with our loved ones in mind, knowing that there will be some sacrifices along the way.  But if irreparable damage is being done, what is it for?  Thank you for the succinct and elegant reminder to keep our priorities straight.

  • Frankly Njbradburn we all need balance and boundaries and hopefully we can share insights about ways to live them. You are not alone, according to these comments re the crack berry habit šŸ™‚ … yet you are aware that you want a shift and that was the first step for me. Thanks for the thoughtful comment

  • Njbradburn,
    I have done similar things… this is not a one-time change, paying closer attention but an ongoing struggle/practice to shift to doing one thing at a time, for me at least.

  • “It’s not always easy, but you can improve with practice — and find yourself becoming more flexible, more open to new ideas, and better able to resonate with others.”Thank you for drawing attention to an important subject with this article šŸ™‚  EFT is a powerful tool that can help us break old habits and patterns easily and quickly.  Combined with the right questions, it can lead to greater awareness and help us notice “what is good and new” in our ever changing environment.  I have shared more on this in the article:
    “What’s good and new?” at  http://serenereflection.wordpr… .  

  • Buying into distraction comes at a much higher cost than paying attention to those who matter most.

    Distraction is the escapists’ addictive drug of choice. Distraction is a costly epidemic in modern society.


  • That’s why we must model the calming, centering, clarifying behaviors that enable us to work and play and collaborate in thoughtful, productive ways eh Andrew?

  • I am a poster-child for the premise!  Thanks Kare…

  • David Molden 06/06/2012 05:28 AM

    Excellent article. I weaned myself off a ‘focus on things’ habit by walking the length of Tottenham Court Road (technology shopping) without looking in one window for the latest gadget. I learned to ‘focus on people’ many years ago by just listening and developing my sensory acuity. Need more about this.


  • Kare, thank you sharing this. I have noticed that the more attention I pay towards the most mundane things, I allow myself a space for a profound sense of beauty to manifest. The experience is quite ineffable. Writings on mindfulness of Thich Nhat Hanh also seem to confirm this. I have noticed this more discerningly in offices when food is relegated to a necessary fuel for the body, devoid of joy and fun, involved in the simple act of eating. I have experimented with this. Whenever I pay utmost attention to food in office, the rest of my day goes like a breeze. I am able to enjoy and handle challenges more playfully.

  • Oh that is beautifully put Venkataraman… I am in awe…and you cite the person that first introduced me to to a walking meditative practice… a decade later I was honored to be in another walking experience with him at Spirit Rock in northern marin

  • “Giving undivided attention is the first and most basic ingredient in any relationship.” So obvious, so fundamental, but in this confused world of ours we need people like Kare to put it into sharp focus. Which she does so beautifully. As always.
    Someone once asked a wise man for help because, as he put it, “foreign thoughts” kept intruding when he was trying so hard to fully focus on matters that required his undivided attention. “Foreign thoughts?!” retorted the sage. “My friend, these are YOUR thoughts!”  

    Bottom line: All habit-changing requires effort, but is it worth it? Absolutely!

    How to Build Relationships That Stick

  • Kare,
    This is a powerful reminder about valuing others as well figuring out where we “spend” our attention. It reminded me first to drop everything else (cell phone, pen) and really, truly engage with a person who is speaking to me — my wife, my son, first, of course. Then I started thinking about the author(s) who wrote about the “Attention Economy” and how attention will be the world’s most valuable currency (or something like that). Thanks for a great post. Has me thinking. 

  •  Yes, good to realise that time in someone’s company does not always equal attention. However there’s no point trying to focus on somebody unless it’s a mutual effort. Easier to educate ourselves than those around us on this matter I think!

  • Dale Collie 06/06/2012 03:07 AM

    Your information is on target for leadership – marriages – families – corporations – and political bodies. In all of these and every other relationship, undivided attention is a key to communication and trust. In one of my positions of leadership an assistant came into my office to ask a question. I continued to type even though I looked up and was listening to what he asked. Even though I could multi-task, my fingers chasing across the keyboard while we talked was just too much. He said, “This is too weird. I’ll be back when you’re not busy.” I later thanked him for telling me to “pay attention.” 

    And I have to say the same to you … thanks for the important reminder.

  • Libby Fordham 06/06/2012 02:34 AM

    I’m very conscious of where attention is centred – whether through my work with clients or when spending time with my children, who are seven and five.  And the fact that we all need to realise that we are part of a greater interaction, every moment, every emotion, which can simply either make someone’s day or ruin it.  Thank you, Kare. This captures an important point and encourages us to look outward in what is often a very inward looking world.

  • Kare, I like this. So many of the people we talked to in our latest story-gathering adventure talked about the power of just being there for each other, the power of looking deeply into someone’s eyes, or being listened to by even just one other person and hearing “you can do this!” This is a wisdom many of us are relearning now. Feels so bloody difficult some days. And so very simple when we let it be simple.

    – love from Seattle

  • Thank goodness optimism can be learned.  Focusing on the positive is a choice.  Leaders need to choose their focus.

  • Kare,

    This is a great article!  I think I recognized this was a problem when our daughter was about 5 years old and returned with her first toy creation and started talking to it while riding her tricycle.  It took a minute to realize that she had put numbers on a wood block and was pretending to be mommy talking on her cell phone!

    Your perspective on focus is dead on.  Not only do we create our own life experiences, but we seem to attract what we focus on.  These negative patterns often go unnoticed and unrecognized to the point that we sometimes call these negative perspectives our conscience or our true inner self.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Changing this mental focus is not easy, but is the basis for many different self help programs.  Tony Robbins and the Hoffman Institute I think are excellent examples.  I think to get out of this funk listening to others is a good start, but so is Tony’s idea of asking more intelligent questions (ie what can I do to have a more powerful relationship with my child? instead of oops why am I such a screw up again?) or the Hoffman approach of seeking the counter balancing pattern and trying to substitute it for the errant one.  

    One thing that I found particularly helpful when trying to focus on the other person is to be able to see past what’s on the surface to see…

    show more

  • Once again, you’ve highlighted an important issue. Energy follows attention but maintaining focus is a challenge is our world of ever-present distractions.  In a recent post, Tony Schwartz (the Energy Project) noted that “we’ve allowed technology to take a pernicious toll on our attention, and in turn, on our creativity, our resilience, our relationships, and ultimately, our productivity.”  (http://bit.ly/MgLI3A). When it comes to relationships- the increasing dependence on virtual connections makes it even more difficult to give undivided attention to someone with whom we’re interacting.  Perhaps we need to think of new ways of demonstrating the kind of undivided attention you refer to.  Food for thought…

  • Once upon a time this might have been more obvious. But now with the best of intentions most of us have acquired the habit of multi-tasking not realizing that the unintended consequence is losing the ability to pay undivided attention.  Thanks for the reminder!..

  • What an insightful and helpful piece, Kare. In business and with our families, we can all pay better attention to our mutual benefit. Thank you for paying attention to this important subject. As always, your wise perspective should be shared widely.

  • Who’d have thought that an HBR article would lead to some soul searching. But that’s exactly what has happened. For a few days now, I’ve become increasingly aware that while I may be in the same room as my kids, I’m not always present. In choosing to be preoccupied or only half available, or half listening, I’ve realized that it’s not just them I’m robbing of an emotional bond but myself too. Love, relationships, emotional bonds are about connecting and in order to connect we need to be fully present. This article, though applicable to our work life too, solidified that thought for me. 

    Perhaps this explains how we fall in love, too. Feeling loved is nothing less than feeling heard, listened to, cared for – all byproducts of being given focused attention. If you’ve been there, you know just how lucky you were to have made the journey – those all too fleeting moments of actually feeling heard. Moments that don’t come by so easily once you factor in the onslaught of our daily lives, the many distractions and diversions in our day.  For me, there is only one solution. To set aside family time, to treat those moments together as non-negotiable and to guard it ferociously from the needling interference of life’s many to-do lists, phone calls, pings and texts.  


  • Roxy Caraway 06/05/2012 10:55 PM

    Great article Kare! You make excellent points.  I think watching others is very key to successful interactions.  One thing I have found is that when I am happy and that is projected, it seems that what I have to say has more impact on the group I am interacting with, whether the checker at the grocery store, or my team at work.

  • Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton 06/05/2012 10:49 PM

    You illustrate the need for collaboration and the focus on “we” over “me”. I appreciate the research you cite and the story you craft in this compelling post.

  • I found this article to be very eye-opening and inspirational — especially as a future business leader. Taking note of how others view and experience the world can have a long lasting positive impact on me as well as my associates. What stood out to me the most was how much children can teach us about ourselves. It puts my whole life into perspective. Being open to new things and making an effort to enhance my experience of the world around me can in fact go a long way. Not only has it helped me realize that what appeals to me can run my world, but it also provides ways I can change that. Thanks, Kare!

  • Loved the article.   I’m looking forward, in the coming days, to staying more mindful of what capture my attention, as well as what should or should not have captured my attention.  BTW, it’s great to see how you weaved in the work of Marty Seligman.  I’m a fan, and I am now midway through his latest book, “Flourish”.   Perhaps in a future post, I’d like to hear any further perspectives or advice on the concept of active listening.  

  • I found this article to be very eye-opening and inspirational — especially as a future business leader. Taking note of how others view and experience the world can have a long lasting positive impact on me as well as my associates. Being open to new things and making an effort to enhance my experience of the world around me can in fact go a long way. Not only has it helped me realize that what appeals to me can run my world, but it also provides ways I can change that. Thanks, Kare!

  • Koen, you brought up an important insight..being open to how other view /experience the world… key, not just for leaders…. thank you

  • Kare, 
    Great reminder to listen to others and our minds! And to remember that others from different cultures, status, and … Basically anyone is going to have a different and valuable perspective if you stop to observe. Wow what valuable input they may have to help you meet your objectives and move your team forward!

  • spot on Annette, especially in this increasingly complex, connected world where it behooves all of us to hone our capacity to work well with people who don’t act right … šŸ™‚ … like us

  • Paul Chaney 06/05/2012 10:16 PM

    “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he,” the Bible says. Agree that what consumes our attention has a lot to do with the person we become. Another epithet, “Our attitude determines our altitude!”

  • Matthew 6:21 Where you treasure is, there will be your heart.

  • One of my favorite verses, R, Michael… now to remind myself of the core message more often

  • Kare, Some good insights here.  “To learn about your own attention patterns, examine someone else’s” reminded me of one of my meetings here in New York at Book Expo.  I met with a distributor who was constantly distracted to the point where it was difficult to have a conversation.  I made a mental note to be more present and honor those that I spend time with.  Given that we live in an era of many distractions, I think you’ll start hearing the term ROA… return on attention.  What are you getting back from  totally showing up and being present?

  • One of my most visceral ways to learn what I want to get better at, Scott, is when I am around people who irritate me with one of the behaviors, and then notice that do that same thing… bet it’s exciting to be at BEA in a time when publishing is getting so disrupted….

  • Kare, I appreciate your alerting me to your excellent article.  I often express the same sentiments to anyone who will pay attention to me.

    I believe in living in the moment as much as possible, and not worrying about what’s next.  I agree with your suggestion to listen actively, to ask thought-provoking questions, and to pause so other people have a chance to express themselves.

    Despite being an active user of social media, I have resisted using a smartphone.  I spend so much time online as it is, that I want to spend the rest of my time disconnected from the network. I try to be aware of what is going on around me, to connect with people (not a device), and to pay close attention to what they are saying.

    Thanks for writing this.

  • Kare- Love this article and think your insights on undivided attention are valuable and an excellent  point to remember both in professional and private life.

  • Nicole Stiffle 06/05/2012 09:10 PM

    Kare, What an interesting article, and so many ideas that really resonate for me. I’ve always been a firm believer that the lens through which you look out at the world can meaningfully impact your experience (i.e. giving more air time and attention to the positive data points can create more happiness). I also think it’s very interesting to think about how what you pay the most attention to impacts how you see and experience the world – like many, my cell phone has become more like another appendage over the past 2-3 years. Because of this, more of my hours have been divided ones, with an eye toward the bright blue bubble of a new unread email, or an ear towards the addictive ting of a new text message. In my own personal test, I’ve taken to turning my cell phone on silent during certain windows, and even leaving it at home when I go to meet a friend for a short period of time. It’s amazing what a reorientation this can be — not only causing me to pay much better attention to the people I’m with when I’m detached from my cell phone, but also causing me to pay (ever so slightly) less attention to my cell phone even when it’s with me!

  • Thank you, Nicole, for that idea of turning it offer during certain windows… akin to Tiffany Schlain who takes a day off each week from all communication devices… I do that three evenings a week when I want to play, learn celebrate with others, face to face

  • Great lessons for leaders.   Your team is watching!

  • Yes, and that team is noticing what we REALLY value by what we ignore and what we focus on JC

  • Thank you for another great post Kare!Attention = Consideration in my book. In our new world of “idistractions”, I am afraid that it’s only going to get worse…

  • I agree Dan, worse for some, better for others…. several books coming our about the attention economy and about distraction… after writing this column I became even more aware of how conflicted we are about being connected all the time via our devices

  • Great post as always Kare. A relationship of any kind is about giving and the greatest gift is listening. 

  • Just another great post from Kare. TY! 
    Attention = Consideration in my book. Unfortunately, in our new world of “idistractions”, consideration has become a more precious commodity than ever before…

  • Kare,

    Excellent point on mentally orienting yourself properly. The line “Fake it to make it” has a strong connection with AA for the reason that it actually works — or can actually work. Thought makes the brain indeed — from the big compulsions to the smaller act of putting the best face on a hard day.

  • Kare’s practical advice to pay closer attention is particularly valuable in the context of cross-cultural negotiations. Listening respectfully and attending to the other party’s “foreign”  priorities, phrasing, pace, pauses and posture can pay concrete dividends in negotiation progress and results. 

  • Thank you Russell. Along those lines, I have a saying that I do not follow enough: go slow to go fast

  • Kare – My first thought was.. when are you post part two? 

    Your insights are thought provoking and reminded me that just listening is not enough. However, although I knew a response to the other person was important, I didn’t realize how much both people were impacted by mirroring and verbal cues. By paying attention to another we give to both of us. Then my thoughts turned to a book I read many years ago, Huxley’s Island and I remembered the mynah birds calling attention.  “Listen to him closely, listen discriminatingly. […]” Will Farnaby listened. The mynah had gone back its first theme. “Attention,” the articulate oboe was calling. “Attention.” “Attention to what?” he asked, in the hope of eliciting a more enlightening answer than the one he had received from Mary Sarojini. “To attention,” said Dr. MacPhail. 

  • Toby I actually have two follow up posts in mind because, at the core, what we all want, are ever-deepening, mutually caring relationships that enable us to savor life and, sometimes to accomplish more with others than we can on our own…. and, per susan Cain, have nourishing alone time … plus fallow periods for introspection… i hope i am speaking for others who feel similarly anyway

  • Thank you, Kare. Your article was, as all of yours are, both informative, insightful and useful. I will have my next class read and discuss it. I teach Spiritual Living at two residential drug and alcohol recovery centers. Many of our clients are stuck in their own healing only focusing on me, me and me. By authentically listening to others, they can also aid their own healing.

  • Then George, you are serving a life-changing situation that seems to be growing in our culture. It must be so satisfying. Will you be writing about it, I hope?

  • Doctorrebecca 06/05/2012 07:53 PM

    Kare, I love your observation that paying attention is “a kind of social cement that holds groups together and helps them feel part of something greater than themselves.” Wow! Can I borrow this idea for one of my communication classes???  It’s such a great visual image!