If you’re like most of us, you spend your days wishing for more time. If you could have an extra hour or two in the day, you think, you could be much more successful. But time is not our most valuable resource – attention is paid, according to Shelmina Abji, a former IBM vice president who led a team with more than $1 billion in sales. Abji is now a TEDx speaker and author of the new book Show Your Value: 8 Purposeful Strategies for Women to Emerge as Leaders at Work. And, he says, a few simple changes to the way you spend your workday will help you maximize that precious resource and help you achieve your bigger goals.
Why does Abji say that attention is so important? If you think about it, the most successful people in the world have exactly the same 24 hours in a day as you, he explains. “What differentiates our success is how we allocate our attention.”
Because we’re all mobile, we all have information and notifications coming at us all the time, he adds. “If we’re not paying attention, we could be in a meeting—or at dinner with our spouse or kids—and our attention is somewhere else. So we’re not really present.”
If this happens, you risk losing. “If you’re not really present, it’s very hard to figure out how to show up at your best, value the situation, and move toward your own success,” she says.
Here’s Abji’s advice on making the best use of that most precious resource – your attention.
1. Focus on the present moment.
If a meeting, conversation, or task is important enough to deserve space on your calendar, it’s important enough to also deserve your undivided attention, says Abji. This means putting down your mobile device and really listening.
It will help, he adds, if you have a desired outcome for each such encounter. That desired outcome can be learning something, contributing something useful, or both. And you should always try to make the best possible impression, which is how you build your personal brand, he adds.
Even if what someone has to say is boring or repetitive, you should pay attention and look for opportunities to add value to the conversation. “Put yourself in their shoes. If you were talking and someone wasn’t listening, how would that make you feel?”
2. Stay energized.
It’s hard to be truly present if you’re feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, says Abji. So she recommends creating your own strategy to feel energized throughout your work. Start with a morning routine that leaves you feeling energized when you start the day. And then make sure to take frequent breaks throughout the day, either 5-10 minutes every hour, or 15 minutes every two hours. Be sure to build in some storage time between meetings or phone calls so you can recharge. “You have to know yourself well enough to know how to look energized and ready to go,” she says. “And then show up like that every week.”
3. Learn how to say no.
As Warren Buffett and others have noted, the more successful you are, the more you have to say no to things. How do you become good at saying no? Start by having a clear idea of what your highest priorities are, says Abji. “What is the opportunity that, if you take it, will bring you closer to your own definition of success? What is worthy of my attention?” Only things that meet these criteria should go into your journal, he says.
Your client’s or boss’s priorities should be your priorities, he adds. But if a proposed meeting, conversation or task does not meet these criteria, say no politely but firmly.
This will allow you to get the most out of the things you say yes to. “When you do that, you’ll be fully present, because you already have an agenda for how you want to show up,” she says. “What do you want to get out of it? What value do you want to create? How do you want to grow?” When you focus on these questions, he says, “Your mind won’t wander to the past or the future or anywhere else.”
Bringing that level of attention to every meeting you attend requires saying no to many other meetings and invitations that don’t help you achieve your goals, he says. “For a lot of people, myself included, it’s very difficult. We want to be cooperative. We want to come across as team players. We want to please people and make friends with people. So we’ll say yes, even when something doesn’t work ” Don’t lead us to our definition of success. But when you do that, you’re not optimizing your performance. In the end, you will lose respect. And you won’t be able to bring your best self to anything you do.” That doesn’t benefit anyone — not your client, not your company, and certainly not you.
Treating your attention like a precious resource, one to cultivate carefully and spend wisely, means you’ll do great work when it matters most. Try making these small changes and see what they can do for you.