It happened yet again last week. I sent someone a short email, about five sentences long with four dates and times I was available to meet with them. They replied, choosing a morning on one of the dates I had included. The problem was, all the options I had provided were afternoons. So, I wrote back, advising I couldn’t meet then but was free that afternoon and they sent another email confirming that worked for them. Now, this isn’t a huge deal but our exchange ended up being two emails longer than it needed to be because of a small missed detail.
I find this type of thing happens all the time, in both written and spoken conversations. People asking questions that have already been answered. People repeating the same thing multiple times. People mixing up information. And when you measure the impact of this over the countless emails, telephone and in-person conversations we have, it adds up to a lot of time wasted. But I have a solution for this persistent, frustrating and, ultimately, unproductive trend – pay attention.
This advice applies whether you’re reading something or listening to someone. When we don’t pay attention, we make mistakes which results in more work. When we do pay attention, we get things right the first time more often which improves our productivity. If this makes sense to you, I offer up three suggestions to help you pay attention.
1. Slow Down
We think by moving faster, we will get more done but we don’t. We miss things, hear or read things incorrectly, and then we make mistakes, based on that misinformation, which lead to more work. Slowing down is surprisingly a way to speed up. So, take a little extra time to read what you are writing to make sure it’s clear. Carefully read what someone else has written and think for a moment before you reply. Do the same when listening to someone. A little more time spent in the moment can save a lot of time spent later.
2. Stop Multitasking
We like to think we can successfully multitask but, the truth is, we are horrible at it. Multitasking is code for doing many things poorly. It’s better to do one thing at a time and do it well. Most of the time, our multitasking involves technology of some sort. We might be searching for something online while talking on the phone or writing an email while listening to a presentation. But our brain is not capable of processing both activities at once so one of those tasks ends up winning over the other. So, do what you need to do to focus on one thing at a time. Put your phone away, close your email, shut your laptop – whatever will allow you to give the one most important thing in that moment your full attention.
3. Get Out of Your Head
Research has shown we retain a mere 20-25% of what we hear. That’s largely because of the thoughts and opinions running through our brains when we are listening to someone else. This inner monologue comes from our tendency to make judgements, jump to conclusions and look for evidence to support our pre-existing beliefs, value or perceptions. Typically, we are listening with a goal of replying instead of listening with a goal of understanding. As a result, we have troubling hearing each other in the first place. Learning active or effective listening skills helps us get out of our own heads so we can hear, understand and remember what others are trying to tell us.
At first, these three strategies may seem counterintuitive but they work. And over time, they will improve your ability to pay attention to the verbal and written communications in your workplace. Not only will this improve your productivity, but it will also help you build better relationships. Whether it’s a colleague, a customer or your boss, everyone wants to be heard and understood. So, pay attention and watch your productivity and relationships grow.
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