One day, out of interest, I recorded my first three hours as CEO: Between 7:45 and 11 a.m., I had a call with our co-founder Lloyd en route to the office, met with our key investors for a deep dive into our business, had my 1:1 with our other co-founder Rich (my manager), chaired a 60-person executive meeting, prepped for the company all-hands with our employee communications team, toured our office renovations with our facilities team, jumped into four unscheduled conversations spanning product and industry issues, met with three separate product teams about how important their work was to our mission and consulted with recruiting on the positioning of three major offices. I also had three coffees and two bathroom visits.
This was three ordinary hours of an ordinary day, and I bet if you ask any other leader to do the same exercise, their rundown would be similarly extensive. But it's not my schedule that leaves me completely exhausted after most work days; it's the context switching.
You'll hear tales of leaders -- specifically, presidents and other politicians -- who are incredible at context-switching: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are said to make you feel like the most important person in the room for the minute they interact with you. And while we recognize how great that level of attention feels as a recipient, most of us struggle to deliver it because we've been trained by technology and given a pass by society to fragment our attention. Retraining ourselves to really focus -- repeatedly -- is really hard.
The problem with multitasking is it annihilates our ability to give undivided attention, which is fundamentally changing the way we interact with information and people. The constant demand on our eyes and ears has driven our attention span down to less than that of a goldfish; our youngest generation has invented the "rule of three" to maintain availability on text and social while appearing present in person. We want to attend everywhere, but we're not really showing up anywhere. And we're excusing each other for poor attention because we want to be excused for it ourselves.
But multitasking is especially crippling for leaders because it prevents us from showing empathy. If your job as a leader is to empower teams, clear roadblocks and create an environment for your employees to do their best work, you can't do that well if you don't fully understand their needs and share the urgency of meeting them. You can't make people feel heard and valued when you signal that something else deserves your attention more.
I won't pretend to be an expert at this, but there are a few tactics and habits I've introduced to try to be more present with colleagues, and I try to pass them along to help others be more attentive and empathetic. The first thing I do is swap my laptop for a pen and paper in most meetings. We're trained to carry our laptops around like teddy bears, but these machines masquerading as tools of productivity are actually making us more distracted.
I find (consistent with the results of studies) that I listen more intently, retain more information and follow up on the right things if I physically write a few notes down. Keeping my laptop out of the equation also helps me make more eye contact and prevents me from checking email or thinking about topics other than the ones right in front of me.
I also try to keep my phone out of sight or out of reach. Our phones are a widespread addiction and a constant risk of "attention tax" at times when we need all the attention we can muster. I recently learned that even the presence of a phone on the table reduces the quality and empathy of conversations because it diverts our attention -- even if the phone isn't exhibiting activity.
Finally, I try to employ something I learned from my wife, Nanci -- what I'm calling the "superhero" method. She's excellent at dealing with one thing at a time, especially when it comes to the wide array of needs from our kids. Homework tonight must be dealt with before soccer practice tomorrow, which must be dealt with before a science project due Friday. She perfected this skill over many years as a doctor, where crisis management in a hospital requires intense focus on a specific problem, before turning attention to the next issue.
As leaders, tuning in is a responsibility to our stakeholders because it makes us better at our jobs, but it also provides greater fulfillment personally. As validating as it feels to get undivided attention, I'd argue it feels even better to provide that back to your team.