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The Gift of Being Present


I have a confession to make. Though I care deeply about my career, my colleagues, our clients, and their projects, I’m sometimes prone to getting distracted or trying to multitask to try and get more done. Many of us have read the articles or heard about the studies that multitasking does more harm than good, but every week I observe people in countless meetings checking email, texting, and using other apps on a variety of devices during important meetings rather than focusing all of their energy at the task at hand. I used to be one of these offenders. But all that has changed.

About six weeks ago, I was invited to lead a design strategy session as part of a larger meeting around a complex website redesign for a company that deals with various user types and has to clearly cater to each of them. The session itself went very well and we captured the distinct user types, motivations, behaviors, and desired content for each group, validating our findings with the key stakeholders and recording the information to use for the site map to drive the content strategy. After the segment I was leading concluded, I sat back down and opened up my laptop while my colleague continued the discussion around the finer points of timeline and next steps.

While she was discussing these items with the team in the remaining 40 minutes of the meeting, I checked a few emails, sent out a few replies, and even made a small code update for a client who discovered a small issue with their site. After the meeting, my colleague mentioned that she was somewhat surprised to see me “checking out” after the User Needs segment and becoming somewhat unfocused on the remainder of the meeting. Initially I was somewhat surprised that it bothered her. I had come to accept peering at a laptop during a meeting as the status quo because I’d seen so many clients and colleagues behave the same way.

What came out of that conversation was her assurance that as a whole, the meeting went well and the clients were engaged and pleased with what we accomplished, but that there was room for improvement. There was the opportunity to do better by having the discipline to truly be present during every meeting I attend and to focus only on what’s being discussed, leaving the virtual world behind until afterwards. I took it as a challenge and began leaving both my laptop and phone on my desk starting the next morning.

During that period, I’ve definitely felt a positive change. I take more away from each meeting, have a clearer sense of what we achieved and what needs to be done next, but even more importantly I get the sense that on a subtle level, people feel respected when their peers are truly present and focused, and that energy pervades into the larger relationship. By leaving distractions elsewhere, you get more out of what you’re doing and you can pick up on the subtleties that you may have missed before, making the conversation even more worthwhile.

If you face this same problem or have colleagues that do, I challenge you to leave your devices behind this week and see if you feel a difference.

Author Alex Fedorov

Alex is a strategic thinker with a gift for information architecture, known for his ability to wireframe complex workflows and multiple states of applications at the speed of light. He is passionate about clean, data-driven design.

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