Tactical Ignorance: Protecting your attention
Read Time : 3 minutes
Attention is a hugely valuable commodity, so precious indeed that companies are willing to invest over 5 million dollars for a 30 second ad at the Superbowl. Our attention undoubtedly influences our behaviour and, as a result, the deployment of attention dictates whether we move closer to our goals, or stay stagnant in a vicious circle of chasing the next fad, trend or craze.
As a friend and I discussed secondary school memories during a coffee stop on a recent cycle, we fondly remembered a teacher who took twenty minutes to get from his classroom to the staff room. This, what should have been a one minute journey, was interrupted by conversations about 'why coats weren't allowed in the corridors', 'how those trainers weren't part of the school uniform' and why it was so important to 'follow the school's "walk on the left" policy'.
By the time he reached the staff room he looked more exhausted, red faced and stressed than he did before his journey began and, even more disconcerting, he had to make the journey to back to his classroom after lunch. Reflecting on this as an adult, the importance of the art of tactical ignorance in life become abundantly clear. The most prominent ideas of which I will explore below.
For some practitioners, all tasks, rules and regulations hold the same weight and must be addressed accordingly. This leads to some spreading themselves thin in the pursuit of doing everything. Not only does this create extra workload but it creates a culture where duties are never complete, and failure is inevitable.
With 1500 pupils at the school, our teacher would always be able to find small, inconsequential rule infractions. The question remains as to whether tackling them improved adherence to the rules, improved pastoral provision and was a good use of his time and energy. In the seven years we attended, his lunch time walk never changed so, anecdotically speaking, he seemed to be wasting valuable attention on tasks which resulted in little to no gains.
Many of the tasks assigned to us are simply unimportant. They will have little to no impact on moving the needle in the direction we want, yet we still undertake them anyway. We must become adept at sorting the wheat from the chaff and engage with only those tasks which will truly have an impact.
For our teacher, the impact to investment ratio for his efforts were, at best, very low or maybe even negative. His behaviour had zero impact on curricular provision, possibly decreased pastoral provision due to the regular conflict encountered with pupils and certainly decreased his in-class energy.
The result of some tasks can be improved performance and outcomes but their implementation must be supported by systems, processes and practices that are agreed and shared by all members of the business or school community. Without institutional adherence some tasks can become inactionable.
In the case of our teacher, if the whole staff base had have worked to implement the rules with the same vigour, there may have been system wide success which would have increased compliance across the school and thus reduced his workload. The impact on school improvement as a result of these measures is still a matter of much debate, but if systems, processes and practices were agreed and implemented on a school wide level success in this domain would have been possible.
On the other hand, when an individual attempts to act as 'an island of excellence in a sea of mediocrity' (Covey 2013), they quickly become overwhelmed with the task, effectiveness decreases and anxiety and stress increase as a result. For any system to work, agreed norms around processes and practices are essential.
The data are clear; the tasks we decide, and decide is the key term, to undertake must be important, impactful and actionable. If tasks fail to hit all three of these criteria, excluding scenarios of danger of course, we must refuse to waste our attention on them. It is our moral imperative to redirect this energy to areas which are not only actionable but of greater impact and importance.
1. Do you protect your attention?
2. Are all your tasks important, impactful and actionable?
3. Which tasks do you need to eliminate from your life?
Covey, S. 2013, The 3rd Alternative: Solving Life's Most Difficult Problems, Simon & Schuster, London.