W. H. Auden once said: “Choice of attention—to pay attention to this and ignore that—is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer.” The poet’s words of long ago might as well have been written for us today. From the time we wake up to the time we go to sleep, we make important decisions on what we will pay attention to. I am not talking about the attention we pay to our work and our clients—the things that are vital to our organization’s success and our economic well-being. I am talking, instead, about what Auden refers to as our inner life.
Our inner life expands or shrinks in direct proportion to what we focus on. It’s an existential choice; that is, we are responsible for how we spend our time. This is important because our inner life ultimately defines who we are as a person—independent of titles, job functions or which seat we occupy on the corporate success bus. Jobs can come and go, businesses can start and end, but who we become in the process is what lasts a lifetime.
It’s true that in our highly charged, digital existence, there is, realistically for most of us, only a small amount of time left for discretionary attention. And in this life crunch, the thing that often gets pushed aside is the fitness of our inner life—our family, our personal relationships, our health and our spirituality.
Here are six tips to inspire you to pay more attention to your inner life:
1. Live in more than one world. Consider living a multi-dimensional life beyond the four walls (virtual or brick) of your work life. Just before his death, Peter Drucker, one of the most influential business thinkers of our modern time, said that the satisfied, contented people he knew were people who “lived in more than one world. Those single-minded people…in the end are very unhappy people.” Drucker targeted all individuals, but in particular, knowledge workers (he coined the term), who are perhaps more at risk of living in a one-dimensional world.
In Living in More Than One World: How Peter Drucker’s Wisdom Can Inspire and Transform Your Life, Bruce Rosenstein outlines Drucker’s philosophy and shows us how we can create what Drucker considered a total life, one that includes work, friends, family, professional colleagues and affiliation groups; in short, a life that is rich and fulfilling. The secret to achieving this is by living in more than one world, enjoying a diversity of interests, activities, acquaintances and pursuits.
The author recommends starting the journey of living more holistically by completing a “Total Life List,” contained in the book. This is a snapshot of where you are and where you need to go. The book provides a roadmap for creating a total life. You can also join one of the Drucker Societies around the world to expand your views and effect positive change for others. The site also provides a rich set of tools for effectiveness.
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2. Adopt the motto that “charity begins at home.” Balance what you give to others, whether in volunteering, mentoring, or spending hours answering strangers’ e-mail requests, with the actual time you spend with those closest to you. Do you need to make any adjustments to the time scale?
3. Lessen the emotional footprint you leave on relationships. We are all concerned about the carbon footprint we leave on our environment. Consider the other kind of footprint: the emotional one that we may unwittingly leave on our relationships when we show up stressed, harried and distracted—consumed by our work and the business. If this describes you, resolve to make some changes. It’s a question of managing your moods so that they don’t spill over from the office to the living room.
4. Set up non-negotiable personal rules. Make dinner time a sacred space for enjoying food and paying attention to whoever is sharing a table with you. This means setting up a personal rule that you will not check your BlackBerry or take any phone calls during that time. Rarely, if ever, is the issue so crucial that it cannot wait the 30 or 45 minutes it takes to complete this ritual.
5. Root for your friends. While we don’t purposely set out to ignore the achievement of others, we are often so busy with our own, that we don’t stop for a moment to acknowledge others’ achievements. It takes very little time to congratulate someone on Linkedin when you notice their achievement update; it doesn’t take long to click “Like” on a friend’s Facebook entry or to honor them by re-tweeting an article of interest. More and more today, these are the gestures of grace that send an electronic hug to those in our social network.
6. Don’t keep score. Attention in any given day is in limited supply. It takes more effort to hold a grudge, for a real or imaginary slight—to remember who did what, or who didn’t do what, or for what reason—than it does to blow it away. Do your best to patch up what went wrong and if, despite your sincere effort, there is no improvement, press the delete button to purge all old stuff that is cluttering your life’s inbox. And make room for new people too.
Put your foot on the brake, at regular intervals, to take stock of your life and where you are heading. Consider if a shift in priorities is necessary and which activities need to be abandoned or scaled back. When you have achieved what you wanted to achieve and hit a plateau, consider what you can do to continue to enrich your life. Above all, as you look into the future, consider those who share your present life. Lee Iacocca said it poignantly: “No matter what you’ve done for yourself or for humanity, if you can’t look back on having given love and attention to your own family, what have you really accomplished?”