Are you Leaving the Door Open?

“The ability to focus attention on important things is a defining characteristic of intelligence.”

~ Robert J. Shiller

Are you Leaving the Door Open?

By Natalie M. Houston

Would you leave the front door of your home wide open all day? Would you allow strangers, colleagues, and friends to walk in that open door at any time, and start asking you for directions, assistance, a snack, or a hug? Would you welcome the squirrels, racoons, and stray cats that might stroll in the door? What about the raindrops, dead leaves, or litter that drift in?

If your answer is no (or even a more strongly-worded negation), then I have another important question for you:

Are you leaving the door of your focus and attention wide open all day?

Each time you check email, each time you respond to your phone’s buzz or flashing light that announces the arrival of a new text, each time you jump to read your direct messages on Twitter, you’re opening the door of your attention. No matter what else you were doing, if someone suddenly walked into your home and asked for your assistance, you would probably respond right away, by either helping, redirecting, or rebuffing them.

Just as you protect your family and your belongings by choosing when to open the door of your home and when to leave it shut, you can choose to protect your focus and attention by choosing when to open yourself up to other people’s demands.

Every time you read your email, you’re putting someone else’s priorities before your own. Even if you don’t immediately respond or act on their request, you’re giving their message your attention. Sometimes, of course, that’s exactly what you want to do: we all need to engage with other people, to respond to their requests, and to communicate our ideas and decisions. But you can choose when to do this.

Decide Now When You’ll Check Your Messages Tomorrow

One way to maximize your focus and attention is to define a few set times during your day when you will read and process your incoming emails and messages. Put these blocks of time on your calendar like you would any other appointment. During those set times, bring your full attention to reading and responding to other people. At all other times, bring your full attention to your own priority work or relaxation.

If you’re accustomed to leaving your email open on your computer all day, or picking up your phone whenever it buzzes, it will feel awkward to retrain yourself into a new habit. As a good starting point, try checking your messages for just 20 minutes every two hours. Try it for a full three days before adjusting the length or frequency of your message sessions.

When you get the urge to check your email or messages and it’s not your predefined time, ask yourself:

In wanting to check email right now, what am I pulled towards?
In wanting to check email right now, what am I avoiding?

Just pay attention to what comes up for you in the process. You may decide that given your professional obligations and personal temperament, checking email all the time is what you choose to do. Or you may discover that checking email only a few times per day frees up energy and attention that you can direct towards other things. Either way, just make sure you’re making a conscious choice and not just leaving the door open out of habit.

Natalie M. Houston is a personal productivity coach who works with academics, writers, and entrepreneurs who want to stop procrastinating, gain more control over their time, and move forward on the projects and goals that matter most to them. To find out more, visit:

Coaching Call To Action

What is your habit on email checking today? Minute by minute? Hourly? Twice a day?  Does this strategy increase your focus and attention or decrease it? Will you try a different strategy next week per Natalie’s suggestion to improve your focus?  Who do you need to share your new strategy with to keep to your commitment to yourself?