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How to Get Them to Pay Attention

Wednesday, 8 Aug 2012 | 1:17 PM ET

The 7 laws of attention.

1) It's easy to get distracted.

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When Jimmy Carter was President, he was criticized for micro-managing requests to use the White House tennis courts.

You can see how tempting that might be—easier than negotiating with Congress, or dealing with tough foreign situations.

The challenge is to focus. What are you paying attention to? What should you be paying attention to?

In the last hour, my avoidance behavior has included checking email, scheduling a haircut, and eating almonds.

I don't even like almonds.

2\) Your attention shapes you—and others.

"When a pickpocket walks down a street," says a proverb, "all he sees are the pockets."

The boundaries of your life are determined by your attention. Sometimes we obsess about small things; we get small.

And if you're a leader, others pay attention to you. What you say, and what you do define what's important.

What do you say is important?

3) Assume non-attention.

Attention spans are shrinking. There's too much information, too much noise. So just because you said something, doesn't mean anyone heard it.

Imagine, the next time you talk that, instead of info, you're delivering a truckload of furniture. Here's the problem: the other person's house is already fully furnished.

Where are they going to put all your stuff?

They don't even hear you ring the doorbell. They're out back, in the swimming pool, drowning in information.

4) Attention is a scarce resource; people kill for it.

We forget the value of paying attention to others. Managers, when coaching employees, often think they have to provide advice and make suggestions—and sometimes that's useful.

But there's power to just listening. Listen well, and others will say you have "presence."

Are you present?

5) It's not enough to pay attention.

You've also got to look like you're paying attention.

"I was surprised," a manager told me recently, "to discover how negatively people viewed my texting during meetings."

Maybe you can multi-task, maybe you can't (neuroscientists say you can't), but either way, the optics are bad.

6) Attention can be practiced, and developed. Could make you happier.

"A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind," say Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert.

Their research (www.trackyour happiness.org) suggests that focusing on what you're doing, even if it's just washing the dishes, correlates with happiness; mind wandering, not so much

7) Your attention needs to be refreshed. Often.

Take frequent breaks—shift your attention to here-and-now sensory experience. Stand up and stretch, go for a walk, listen to music.

Stop.

Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (www.expresspotential.com), Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

Comments? Send them to executivecareers@cnbc.com

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