The Importance of Habits and Curiosity, Part I: Valuing Attention

If you think like a lawyer, it may occur to you that that I encourage behaviors that appear mutually exclusive. Here’s how the cross-examination might go:

You advocate that lawyers develop habits? Correct.

And you encourage curiosity and learning new things? I do.

Ah Ha! So, (and with apologies to “Raising Arizona”):

Well, which is it, gray-haired feller? You want I should have more habits or be more curious? Mean to say, if’n I do things routinely, I can’t rightly be curious. And if’n I get curious, I ain’t gonna be following any routines.
Okay then.

You got me. There is tension between those two practices. However, tension does not make two goals mutually exclusive. Tension exists between many things that matter: planning and doing, working hard and working smart, doing things right and doing things quickly, and so on. Seeing an irreconcilable conflict between two goals, by contrast, is a decision that at least one does not matter.

Habits and curiosity appear mutually exclusive (“either/or”) if you believe that time is the only resource you manage. On the other hand, if you entertain the idea that attention is also valuable and worthy of managing intentionally, then you may see these concepts not as “either/or” but instead “yes/and”.

This piece will argue for the importance of identifying and managing attention purposefully, and a future ramble will discuss how habits and curiosity fuel one another when we start paying attention to how they can benefit our practices.

Attention and Intention

Attention is putting your mental energy on something right now by observing or listening. Intention is following on a plan you have created for the future. Attention is your focus, intention determines where you put it.

Sounds so simple, right? Figure out what’s important, and then put your attention there. But what happens when a constant barrage of information short circuits your plan to do the important in favor of the urgent?

What Attracts Attention (i.e. “Distracts You”)?

The brain is programmed to respond to what is novel, pleasurable or threatening. That response was undoubtedly an important survival mechanism when each stimulus required attention (you couldn’t wear noise-cancelling headphones to ignore a saber-toothed tiger). Not so much in a modern office. The urge to act on the most recent email in your inbox must involve equating “urgent” (or at least “recent”) with “important.” If a group of people are waiting to see you, are you inclined to meet first with the one standing in the back of the line?

You there in the back … I will see you now.

This “need” to respond to new things gets repeated and reinforced when delivered directly to our desktops or to the devices that rarely leave our hands. Sometimes the urge to respond involves clients and potential clients. Often the distractions are not business-related. The brain doesn’t distinguish, even when there are matters right in front of us that are or could be more important. And biting on distractions, even the profitable ones, doesn’t take place as a result of any planning. But it feels like things are getting done.

Let me offer a couple of examples demonstrating how this plays out.

Example One: I spoke at the Bar Convention in January. Someone sat close to the stage with laptop open and scarcely took eyes off of that screen for the 75 minutes I spoke. One of two things was happening: 1) this lawyer had work more urgent/important than my talk; or 2) something displayed on that computer captured all attention.

Example Two: While drafting a brief or other document, you receive numerous emails and calls that might offer immediate client value opportunities. (Include the siren songs of social media notifications as appropriate). You (or I) answer them reflexively as if working inside sales, since it feels good to feel the love (or that like), get that work done, and bill the time right now.

Is Time Is the Sole Measure of Value or Cost?

Both of these examples are perfectly rational from the perspective of time: in the first the attorney is killing two birds with one stone; and in the second the lawyer is responsive and pursuing all potential opportunities. Plus, both feel productive for the reasons described above.

However, I think this work approach presumes at least two things:

  • Quantity of time is the only measured unit of value; and
  • The way time is spent has no qualitative effect on its value. Each unit of time spent on one task (e.g. drafting the brief) is as valuable as (and unaffected by) the time you spend on another task (the intervening emails).

What is missing from the equation? The value and costs of attention. Does sustained attention without numerous interruptions produce a different product? Surely the quality of attention you place matters?

I always give clients my full attention. And stop calling me “Shirley.”

Do you answer emails during an oral argument, while in a worship service, or during sex? Those activities are important enough to make preventing interruptions from them essential. We assume that at least one interested party is getting less than full value if your full attention is compromised.

Time is certainly necessary, but not sufficient.

Consider the role attention plays in how you work, and whether you might benefit from using it a little more intentionally. More next time.

This piece is also available in the Richland County Bar Association newsletter.