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Step 2: Calming the Chaos and Cultivating Harmony - Attention

Last week we covered key area #1 – Taking back control of your time. This week we are moving to the 2nd key area to address to gain some calm – taking back control of your attention.


As residents and academic physicians with full lives outside of work, the demands for your attention are numerous! Those demands add to the chaos and seeming lack of harmony. Let’s think through 4 steps of gaining control in this area.


Be present. You may recognize this from other blog posts, so it must be imperative, right? Right! When you're at work and thinking of the discussion with your spouse, partner, kid, sister – your attention is not on the patients and work-related tasks. When you're at home with your loved ones or out with friends, and you're thinking of the undone tasks at work, the medical concerns about a patient, the interpersonal issue with a staff member, your attention is not entirely on your non-work relationships.  So, you're rarely putting your attention in the moment you're living in.


The good news is this is within your control! It will take effort as your brain may be accustomed to being rabbit-like, hopping to various thoughts, here and there and everywhere without intention. So how do you begin? Well, start by noticing when your attention is somewhere other than where you are. Then calmly, without judgment, bring your attention back to the present.


Some people do great with physical reminders/anchors at the transition point.  An example could be when you get in your vehicle to leaving work, you can toss your backpack, purse, or briefcase in the backseat and imagine it has all the cares of work in it. You can pick it back up when you're on your way back to work the following day. Vice-versa, as you're leaving home, as the door closes behind you, you can imagine the door for family time is temporarily shut. On your drive to work, you can begin unpacking your mental backpack to focus your thoughts on the way you want to show up for patients, colleagues, etc.


If you notice that your thoughts have drifted, adjusting your glasses to bring your focus back to the present. You don’t have to be ultra-rigid. Occasionally you may need to think about things in a different setting, such as reading on a patient case in the evening, calling your personal bank during lunch, etc. But the majority of your attention can be placed on the task or person at hand.  It’s so much more fruitful and calms the chaos a bit.


Use Filter #1. Values/Priorities. It’s helpful to filter the demands on your attention. The first filter is your values and priorities. Knowing those gives you a solid algorithm. When you’re being asked to do x, y, and z, ask, "Does this align with my values and my current priorities?” If it doesn’t, then decline it.


Use Filter #2. More Questions. If the demand for your attention passes filter #1, then use this series of questions. (1) Am I feeling like I should say yes from a place of “people-pleasing?” If no, ask (2) Am I considering saying yes because I may feel guilty if I say no? If no, ask the most powerful question. (3) Do I want to do the task or spend my valuable attention on this demand? If yes, then great.  If no – well, that leads me to the fourth tip.


Learn to say no without regret. “No.” is a complete sentence. You don’t owe anyone an explanation. You can dress it up or down if you want. “Thank you for thinking of me, but I am not going to be able to do that.” “I wish I could say yes, but that is not going to work for me.” If you feel pressure to say yes, you may just need to create some space so you can really run it through the filters. "Let me check my schedule and get back to you." "Let me check in with my family, and I'll let you know.” Permit yourself to say these things without guilt. You have a limited amount of attention to give to essential people and tasks. There is no guilt in using that wisely. There is only one you to go around, and it's not anyone else's responsibility to protect your priorities. YOU are the absolute best person to decide.  There is always a trade-off. When you say 'yes' to something, you are saying 'no' to something else. And as my friend and mentor, Dr. Sasha Shillcutt, has said, "Get used to sometimes having to disappoint good people."


Give yourself permission to take back control of where/how you spend your attention by being fully present with the people and tasks at hand. Also, by only giving attention to the most important things after knowing they align with your values and current priorities and you want to do them.  To create relief, calm the chaos, and build harmony in your life, the effort of learning to spend your attention where it serves you the best (and thereby those you care for) is the second key. Next week we look at the 3rd key.


Have a joy-filled day!  Tonya



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