TOM #15: How to have more choice about where your attention goes

Posted on: September 25, 2022

Have you ever parked your car and realized you don’t remember driving there? Or crawled into bed at night and found yourself struggling to remember what you did that day?

These are symptoms of your attention being somewhere other than the moment you’re in. 

They’re indications that your brain has been on autopilot. If you’d like more choice about when or how often that happens, keep reading.

Today’s issue of The Owner’s Manual offers simple ways to activate mindfulness in everyday moments that, when practiced regularly, decrease the disconnect between you and your experience of the world around you.

As with all mindfulness interventions, these exercises will help boost your well-being, increase your ability to focus (and remember things!), and create more calm and joy in your life.

Let's begin with a quick exercise to connect today’s content with your personal experience: 

 Consider what happens at the end of a typical work day for you. What do you do? What is the typical flow of events? With whom do you interact and how? How do you feel? 

  • What do you do, if anything, before leaving your desk/office?
  • How do you transition out of “work mode”?
  • (if applicable) What’s it like when you get home from work?
  • What do you typically do between when work ends and when you go to bed?

Your mind wanders...

According to a 2010 Harvard study, your mind is not consciously aware of what you’re doing about half the time. (47% was the average.) 

That means that more than half of the time you’re not focused on the road you’re traveling, the person who’s speaking to you, or what you’re reading (unless it’s a new issue of TOM, of course 🤪).

Instead, most of the time your mind is occupied with thoughts about things that have already happened or might happen. And if what’s happening in the present involves unpleasant or strong emotions, your mind is even less likely to tune in.

What’s your mind paying attention to right now?

How to mindfully transition

So much of our conscious attention as business owners is on…wait for it…our businesses! 🤦‍♀️

Consequently, most of our focus on building systems and routines relate to how we start our day, engage with colleagues and clients, and manage workflow. Good stuff. Useful stuff. 

But we tend to put little attention on how we finish our work day. On how we transition from work to home life. On who we are being at home.

This issue is an invitation to begin putting (more) attention on these elements of your day, specifically:

  • How you enter your home (or enter your living spaces after leaving your WFH space)
  • How you enjoy moments at home (instead of autopilot through them)
  • How you create space that’s inspiring and nurturing
  • How you put yourself to bed

 Consider what happens at the end of a typical work day for you. 

  • What do you do?
  • What is the typical flow of events?
  • With whom do you interact and how?
  • How do you feel?

As you think about putting more attention into how you transition from work and how you could be more mindful during your personal time, what ideas are coming up already?

How to shift from business (or is it busy-ness?) to calm

Perhaps you tend to repress your frustrations during the day and stew in them at night.

Perhaps you tend to numb yourself from experiencing what bothers you at work and do the same at home.

Perhaps you rehash the past and worry about the future, no matter where you are.

However it works for you, the quality of your transition influences the quality of your evening.

What follows are a few suggestions for integrating mindfulness into your transition and creating an environment which enables you to be fully present with the delightful crazy that goes with raising children, the simple luxuries and comforts of home, savored time with loved ones, or all of these things.

Many of these ideas will likely be familiar, but I’m hopeful you’ll be inspired to try a few or tweak what you’re already doing.

1. Create an end-of-workday routine.

The way you conclude your workday might be more important than how you begin your workday. Why?

  • Because it’s more likely your mind will be present to what is happening when you get home when you’ve prepared for tomorrow before you leave the office.
  • Because it’s more likely you’ll be confident (and less anxious) when you take notice of what’s working every day, rather than wait until the end of the quarter or year.
  • Because it’s easier to get started when you already know the first step you’re gonna take. And it’s easier to be focused when you know what’s most important.

I recommend your “shutdown” routine take less than 10min and include these elements:

  • Notice what worked and make note of it in a way that allows you and your team to build on it.
  • Identify the #1 priority for tomorrow. (Sure you have a few things you have to get done tomorrow, but by definition there can only be one priority.)
  • Identify 3 good things that have occurred in the last 24 hours and why you’re grateful for them.
  • Reset your workspace–both your physical and digital workspaces.

2. Use environmental cues to initiate your transition.

Choose what landmark or other cue will trigger your transition. It’s more useful to use something unique to your work transition since we’re focusing on that specifically. If you work from home in a room that you use for other activities, for example, walking out the doorway of the room isn’t an ideal cue unless you’d like to activate mindfulness every time you do so. 

You already have a number of environmental cues automatically activating responses in your system via one or a combination of your senses. Most of us are quite visual–seeing an old photo can activate all the sensations of the experience that were alive when the photo was taken–so visual cues are great. My most sensitive sense is hearing, so I try to incorporate an audio component. Smells can be good, too. The more specific and sensory you can be, the better. 

For example, pushing the power button to turn off your workstation monitor invokes 3 senses: the sensation of pressing the button, the sound of the button being pressed, and the visual of the screen going dark.

Another example is closing your planner after making final marks in it for the day (the smell of the pen, the sensation of making that last period or check mark, the sound/sensation of the pen cap snapping on and the planner pages smacking closed, the visual of the day’s to do’s marked off and note section full of words).

Perhaps you’d like to use locking the office door (the sound and sensation of the key going in and the bolt latching, the sight of the lock rotating and the bolt straddling the stretch from the door to the doorframe).

Pick one and try it out!

3. Focus your attention with intention.

You can craft a statement that you say consistently when you enter or create your intention for that particular evening as you walk up to the door/park your car. Speak it aloud to yourself as you put your hand on the doorknob. For example, “I am calm, peaceful, and present when I enter my home.”

4. Check-in with yourself before you check-in with anyone else (and again a few times through the evening).

Simply pause and notice what's happening in your head, body, and heart. Try using these three prompts:

  • What are my thoughts right now? (head)
  • What sensations are present? (body)
  • What emotions are present? (heart)

5. Notice, name and nurture.

Put attention on your experience of the present moment. As you notice things, name them. Welcome them and respond to them and yourself as you would a beloved friend, especially when you notice particularly unpleasant things. 

Mindfulness teachings often focus on emotions with this type of practice. I find it useful to extend this approach to everything in your experience.

Example of how this works with emotions: Notice a pit in your stomach and a little nausea…realize (and name that) it’s embarrassment…and nurture yourself: “Of course you’re embarrassed about the misprint, but it’s going to be okay. Few people will notice and those that do notice, know you’re credible despite the error.”

Example of how this works with environmental observations: Notice the shoe rack as you remove your shoes and stow them…realize (and name that) you crave this level of simplicity, ease, and tidiness in the project you’re working on…and nurture yourself: “I’m so grateful to have this refuge at home. Whew! And to have this reminder that I really do know how to create systems and order.”

6. Pareto your thoughts and conversations.

Forgive me, I use the noun pareto (as in Pareto’s Principle) as a verb. I find it useful as a reference for ensuring that most (~80%) of my resources are devoted to what works. In this case, the aim is to devote most of your time, energy, and attention to the good stuff. The stuff that brings you calm, peace, and presence (or whatever you’ve set as the intention for your evening).

My recommendation is to give space/time for voicing (and listening to) frustrations AND intentionally limit it.

It’s natural to want to share what happened during your day. And you may find that as soon as you enter the house, someone is debriefing you on theirs!

When we set limits on things, it increases how efficiently we use them. For example, you could set a time limit on how long you or anyone else can vent or complain. Say, 3 minutes. And set “rules” about this time period. I recommend that the listener role be a non-speaking one for the full 3 minutes.

It can be cathartic to get out our complaints. Having a cap on how long someone can complain will make them more mindful about what they’re saying, more aware of opportunities to make things better, and free to pause without fear of being interrupted. How useful!

Both the time limit and “rules” liberate listeners to actively and compassionately listen, without an agenda or need to “fix” anything. This kind of listening helps the person complaining experience relief. With practice, you’ll likely discover that you and your loved ones won’t typically need the full 3 minutes! (This approach works well with children, too…but be ready for them to hold you accountable to the time limit and rules. 🤪)

7. Create rituals that support your intentions.

Remember from TOM Issue #9: How to create certainty in an uncertain world, rituals are routines that have meaning or purpose attached to them. The predictability and presence that rituals create are so good for you! 

To ritualize any routine, add in mindfulness. Here are examples of how to ritualize things you might already be doing to create more calm, peace, and presence.

Do you spend time reading most evenings?

Boost the comfort of your evening reads with more pillows, a soft blanket, and/or a favorite tea. Is it after sunset? Adjust lighting so it’s cozier. Focus your attention on what you’re reading by taking a few breaths to clear your mind and settle into your body before opening the book/magazine/e-reader.

Do you cook dinner?

Let meal-making be a multi-sensory experience! From the moment you pull out the cutting board or turn on the stove, notice and savor the sights, sounds, sensations, and smells of preparing the meal. When you notice you got distracted (you will!), simply put your attention on your senses again. 

You can enjoy this ritual with others–perhaps even make it a game!-by inviting those with whom you’re cooking and eating to share what they’re noticing.

Nourish yourself not only with what you eat, but also how you prepare and eat it. As you serve food, make eye contact with the persons you’re serving. This is a moment of connection. 

Do you do certain things as part of getting ready for bed?

Check in with yourself as you do so. Is there any desire to rush? Is your mind consumed with thoughts about tomorrow? As you look into the mirror, really connect with yourself and extend gratitude and kindness toward yourself. Notice how you can integrate more of your senses into your nighttime routine. For example when washing your face, notice the sensations of the cleanser on your fingers and face, the sound of the water flowing, the pressure and texture of the towel on your skin, the fragrance and smoothness of the moisturizer or lotion.

What practice(s) would you like to try?

Here’s to building better, together!

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