I was fifteen miles down the road before I realized my mistake. Somehow at the gas station I had stuck the nozzle in the tank, hopped into my car, came out to hear the machine beeping, returned the nozzle, and drove away. And I left without filling a drop of gas into the tank.
I could tell you about my journey before then – about the hours stuck in traffic, or the snow. This could be a post about stress, and busyness. Or I could tell you about how I was trying to download a book while I was in the car (supposedly waiting for the tank to fill with gas) and this could be a post about the dangers of multitasking.
But as I drove away, wondering if I could sneak out enough miles from the tank to make it all the way home, I was struck with this thought: if I’m going to take the time to do the thing, then I darn well better do the thing. Or in other words – be in this moment, fully. Don’t just go through the motions. If I’m going to stop for gas, then fill the tank.
Because – in all moments of our lives – there will be the busyness that comes before, and the desire in the moment to try to be more productive, and to do all the things. Tomorrow we’ll walk into a meeting at work, and we’ll be carrying the load of the previous five meetings of the day, and we’ll simultaneously be thinking about that email we need to write next. All of this will be true.
I recently read a review of a book called “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy” by Jenny Odell. The reviewer says the author “blessedly, does not suggest scheduling ‘nothing’ time” and instead challenges us to do something more profound:
To refuse “to believe that the present time and place, and the people who are here with us, are somehow not enough” is to reclaim ownership of our most precious commodity – our attention. – Summer Moore Batte, quoting Jenny Odell
Our attention, fully in this moment, is what enables us to succeed as leaders – to achieve results, inspire and motivate a team, and to manage our most precious resource: ourselves.
3 Steps to Reclaim our Leadership (and Sanity) in the Attention Economy
1. Do the thing with full presence
Last summer I was a sponsor at an event – and as part of the package each sponsor got five minutes to speak to the hundreds of attendees. The two presenters who proceeded me spoke standing to the side of the stage – having followed a demo that was tethered to a computer there. When it was my turn, I walked up the five steps, planted myself in the center of the stage and spoke from there. If I’m going to sponsor, and speak, and share my story, do it fully. Take the stage. Do the thing, and do it with full presence.
Don’t misunderstand – I don’t mean to do all the things. The recent times when I have felt most unsatisfied have been those when I was running around, trying to do all of the things at once.
I mean this: if you are committing your time to be in a meeting, then ask questions and give commentary – or don’t attend. If you’re going to attend a presentation of someone you respect and want to support, sit in the front row and take a picture. If your kid asks you to listen to the toad character singing hark how the bells on youtube, pause for a minute and laugh at the horrible screeching sounds.
This is what I’ve come to understand the ambiguous phrase “show up” means: to commit our attention, for perhaps only this one full minute, to whatever is before us. It’s a powerful assertion of our leadership in this attention economy. We won’t miss the task before us, and we’ll find life is so much sweeter for it.
2. Pay attention to moments that require courage
I was running around the Dreamforce conference, and I’d met hundreds of people that day and reconnected with many old friends when I met a smiling face in the hall who came in for a hug. It was only walking away from this quick embrace and a generic “How’s it going?” conversation that I realized just who I had patted gently on the back: the very same person who had threatened me earlier this year.
I still feel sick about it.
Being present, contrary to popular belief, does not mean rolling over and dealing with whatever life throws at you in a meditative-like trance. What it does mean, is not rushing around spreading my attention so thin that I can’t recognize stink when it shows up.
Particularly when we are running from meeting to meeting it’s hard to fully take in all that is happening. Yet this is the difference of leaders – to be able to feel a moment unfolding, and take that opportunity to speak into something – to encourage another, to point out an opportunity, to make an important challenge, or to call something out.
The most effective leaders I know are those whose advice is sought after, who are called to meetings to give counsel, and who aren’t afraid to speak about something difficult, when needed. And this requires paying attention.
3. And leave when necessary
Recently I attended a theatrical production near my hometown. The music was fantastic, and the aerobatics of the athletes superb. But I groaned aloud when, as the story began, it marched out the tired storyline of a historical scene set in a brothel. Later we saw the sailor throwing one of the women over his shoulder, and make a joke about drugging her first. Now I wasn’t groaning anymore, I was grumbling. When the bathtub scene began, I grabbed my coat and was out the door.
It’s the first time I remember leaving a theater production midway through.
Others were enjoying themselves – I wasn’t. All I could think about was that a) I’d rather be home and b) if I were here with my team, I’d be accountable.
Being present in a moment isn’t always about endurance, or enjoyment of what is. Sometimes it takes being present enough to realize that what is occurring before us is simply not working for us. And that presence is enough to make a decision to change what exists.
I’ve been practicing sitting into the present moment the past few weeks. It’s been interesting to feel both the decrease in my racing-heart anxiety, and the increase in my grounding as a leader and the confidence I feel acting in any situation.
Lately I’ve borrowed a few phrases from thought leaders I know to create a mini-mantra to keep me grounded in the present moment.
- Presence over Perfection
- Gratitude over Entitlement
- Discomfort over Resentment
- Intention over Overwhelm
Here’s to filling the tank,