The Attention Economy

As we’re beginning to re-emerge from isolation due to Covid, it’s time to take a fresh look at how we focus our attention.

Many of my clients told me that even though working from home was challenging because of family responsibilities, once they got into a groove they found that they were actually more productive since they could focus entirely on being with family for a while, then go to a home office and focus entirely on work. Ah, the benefit of undivided attention.

(And if that doesn’t describe your experience, ask yourself why. Sometimes there are circumstances outside our control—a single parent with small children who will interrupt whenever they think they want or need to, with no one to offer back-up—and often we put up our own roadblocks. But that’s a discussion for another day.)

The Attention Economy refers to how we spend our time and how we focus our attention. How we do that is worthy of an important-sounding title because a key part of effective prioritizing requires choosing what merits our attention and then actually giving our attention to the things we’ve decided need it.


How often do you find yourself doing one activity and thinking about another?  Perhaps you check email while you’re talking with someone. Or you might catch yourself in a networking conversation (virtual or face-to-face), nodding along as someone speaks and you’re mentally composing what to say when it’s your time to talk.

There are two reasons we do this “here but not here” behavior: either we think we’re making good use of the time by multitasking (as in checking email during a conversation) or we’re uncomfortable and trying to get more comfortable (as in preparing our comments while someone else talks). Most of us have also had the experience of getting “busted”: the person who’s talking realizes we aren’t listening, or we make an error because we’re juggling two (or more) tasks simultaneously.

Why not try being fully present with what you’re doing? If you’re in a conversation, close your email and put your phone on “do not disturb” so you can direct all of your attention to the discussion. Let go of the need to compose your side of a conversation while someone else is talking: listen with your full attention and then respond. If you notice your attention wandering, take a deep breath to bring yourself back.

Conversations tend to be more effective when you’re fully present. (Imagine that!) You’ll also find that you catch not only what’s said, but also nuances that should perhaps be explored—including that great conversational tidbit that will turn a ho-hum networking conversation into a relationship that leads to business or other professional opportunities.

You will also develop stronger relationships when you’re fully present. Especially at a time when we’re all so accustomed to playing second fiddle to a smartphone, finding someone who is genuinely engaged in conversation is enormously appealing and memorable. (People who have that special interpersonal it factor are always said to make those around them feel like the only other person in the room. That’s the power of being fully present.) And strong relationships bring all kinds of dividends, from growing your social circle to becoming a trusted advisor.

As Malcolm Forbes said, “Presence is more than just being there.”  Being fully present focuses all of your senses on the task or person at hand.  It’s a learned skill.

Try an experiment: resolve to be fully present for a couple of hours a day and see what you notice.

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