In the age of information overload, Jason Womack warns that when it comes to what we have time to focus on, we are often forced to sacrifice quality for quantity. He offers advice on how we can start paying closer attention to (and reaping the rewards of) the details.
For many Americans, the 21st century has gone from being the age of information to feeling more like the age of information overload. Between the e-mails, memos, and other miscellaneous information you have to read at work, your friends’ Facebook updates, your Twitter community recommending articles for you to read, and that book that’s been sitting on your nightstand (unopened) for the past month—there’s just no way to take it all in. As a result, we’ve become a nation of skimmers, reading just enough of just the right amount of information to have at least a loose grasp on what’s going on in our work and personal lives.
But the tragedy, says Jason Womack, is that in all of our skimming we miss essential details that could help us improve our productivity, build better relationships, and live more gratifying lives.
“Of course, there are obvious reasons to pay attention to the details,” says Womack, a workplace performance expert, executive coach, and author of the new book Your Best Just Got Better: Work Smarter, Think Bigger, Make More (Wiley, February 2012, ISBN: 978-1-118-12198-6, $24.95). “Your momentum is constantly moving you forward, allowing you to better serve your employer and/or clients and just do an all-around better job. Doing so helps you catch mistakes and allows you to connect certain dots that you might not have seen otherwise. You’re not frequently having to interrupt your work flow to put out fires and fix problems, and as a result, you can be more productive overall.
“But I think, most importantly, it helps you build better relationships. When you have an eye for detail—for example, noticing someone’s new watch or remembering that their favorite sports team played the night before—then the people you’re with see that you’re really focused on them. And naturally, that makes them feel special, which makes them think positively of you.
“It also improves your ability to communicate,” he adds. “When you can tell a detail-rich story, it becomes more interesting for the listener. It makes them want to connect with you, and where that desire exists a great relationship can blossom.”
How do you make the rubber meet the road? Well, the good news is that knowing you really want to cultivate this skill is half the battle. You simply need to make a conscious decision every day to pay closer attention. Read on for a few tips to help you become a detail dynamo and get more productive in the process:
Stop multi-tasking. One way to combat information overload and to check more items off your endless to-do list is to multi-task. But while working on a project update memo while on a conference call with a client might allow you to kill two birds with one stone, think about what it prevented you from doing.
“When you multi-task, you can’t give your undivided attention to the things you’re working on,” says Womack. “If you multi-task on a call with a client, chances are you’ll miss something important, maybe a deadline for an upcoming project or at the very least an opportunity to truly connect. Meanwhile, your memo might contain mistakes that you wouldn’t have otherwise made, but worse, you will have missed the opportunity to really think about the project’s progress and what could be done to improve it.”
Carry a camera. No, this isn’t a suggestion that you become a professional photographer. Carrying a camera with you is actually a great way to become more in tune with your environment. “When I have my camera, I’m always looking for the next shot,” explains Womack. “It helps me notice the little things that I might not have noticed if I weren’t looking. My camera is a reminder of the fact that there is more to see, if I’ll stop to see it.”
Set a timer for 15-minute intervals. Womack teaches that our days are actually made up of about 100 15-minute intervals. In fact, 15 minutes is just about the right “chunk” of time for us to be able to stay focused, minimize interruptions, and work effectively. “When you’re first getting started on paying more attention to detail, setting a timer can be a great way to self-monitor yourself,” says Womack. “When you know that timer is ticking down, you’ll be encouraged to really dig in and focus on the task at hand.”
Know when you’re not focused and implement ways to refocus. When you’re working with your timer, write down each instance when you lose focus—even if it’s just to look at a clock to see what time it is. “Writing those moments down will help you figure out what causes you to lose focus,” says Womack. “When you know what can throw you off track, you’ll be able to take action to reduce those distractions. Eventually, you’ll be able to make the most of every minute of your day.”
Practice, practice, practice. You won’t become a master of detail overnight so don’t put too much pressure on yourself. “Essentially, you have to retrain the way you work,” says Womack. “You have to break some bad habits that have developed over the years and replace them with better habits. That won’t be easy, and it will take time. You just have to be diligent about devoting yourself to the details and quickly getting yourself back on track when you slip up.”
Reduce your information stream. One important way to help yourself pay more attention to detail is to simply reduce the amount of stuff vying for your attention. “Get rid of everything you can and reduce what might be coming in,” advises Womack. “Unsubscribe from e-mail newsletters, magazines, book-of-the-month clubs, perhaps even the ad-hoc committees you’ve joined recently. Try the ‘unsubscription’ for three months; at the end of those 12 weeks, you can re-up if you want to!”
Stay in touch. Now, this might sound like one more thing that’s going to clog up your to-do list, but it’s actually a great way to train yourself to keep an eye out for important details. “Probably the ‘secret sauce’ to getting more done is to let people know you’re thinking of them when you DON’T need something from them,” explains Womack. “When I find an article, see a book, watch a movie, etc. that reminds me of someone’s interests, I will pass it on to them. So many times over the years this constant ‘value-add’ initiative has paid off in major ways. It’s a great way to show people you care about them and that you pay attention to what’s going on with them.”
Listen more. There are three different learning styles: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. And everyone in your network falls into one of these categories. Visual people need to see and draw things—they might say, “I see what you’re saying.” Auditory folks need to hear it and say it—they might say, “I hear what you’re saying.” And kinesthetic people create models, print decks, and draw on flip charts or whiteboards—they might say, “That makes sense to me.” “‘Listen’ carefully to people and they’ll make it easier for you to communicate in a way that THEY best receive information,” notes Womack. “When you know how they work, you can give them the details that are more important to them, which will help you work better and more efficiently together.”
“Because we’re so overloaded with information, we often approach our days focused on getting as much done as possible,” says Womack. “But when that is your big goal, you end up ignoring important details, and the details are where big opportunities are found. When you retrain yourself to live in the details, you can improve everything you do and truly make the most of your relationships.”
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About the Author:
Jason W. Womack, MEd, MA, provides practical methods to maximize tools, systems, and processes to achieve quality work/life balance. He has worked with leaders and executives for over 16 years in the business and education sectors. His focus is on creating ideas that matter and implementing solutions that are valuable to organizations and the individuals in those organizations.
Author of Your Best Just Got Better: Work Smarter, Think Bigger, Make More, Jason shows that working longer hours doesn’t make up for a flawed approach to productivity and performance. Entrepreneurs need to clarify their habits, build mindset-based strategies, and be proactive. Womack’s signature workplace performance techniques offer specific strategies to consistently and incrementally improve performance.