How To Take Back Your Attention: Stay Focused With Dave McKeown

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Dave McKeown | Take Back Your Attention


Leaders are often distracted by false urgencies that pop out during the day, preventing them from focusing on what they need to do. Penny Zenker welcomes Dave McKeown, the CEO of Outfield Leadership and the author of the Amazon bestselling book “The Self-Evolved Leader.” Dave sits with Penny to talk about how your attention ends up dictating your priorities. When you’re stuck in the cycle of day-to-day firefighting you won’t be able to work on tasks that have the biggest impact.

Join in the conversation to discover practical tips on how you can stay focused on what matters most. Tune in!

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How To Take Back Your Attention: Stay Focused With Dave McKeown

I am excited to have part two with David McKeown. We had a great conversation when I was on his podcast. We’ve started a new year and there’s a lot to talk about. He has a new course coming up called Reclaim Your Attention. That’s a perfect topic to talk about at the start of 2022, especially when 2020 and 2021 were so distracting in so many different ways and much pulling at our attention. Looking at that, how do we reclaim it? From my perspective, a focusologist’s approach is going to be interesting.

Dave helps individuals, teams and organizations to achieve excellence by doing ordinary things extraordinarily well. That’s important because it doesn’t have to be these massive things that we’re doing. It’s honing in on the basics. He’s the CEO of Outfield Leadership and the author of the Amazon bestselling book, The Self-Evolved Leader: Elevate Your Focus and Develop Your People in a World That Refuses to Slow Down. Dave, welcome to the show.

Penny, it is great to be here with you and I’m delighted to do the return leg.

Your course that’s coming out, why do you care about focus and attention? Your bestselling book was around that leader, elevating your focus and developing your people. Why are focus and attention important to you?

The work that I do with leaders and leadership teams is to help them scale their impact. Even way before the pandemic hit and the distractions of 2020 and 2021 came around, one of the fundamental and foundational leadership skills that are both underdeveloped and exceptionally necessary to scale your leadership is the ability to manage your attention. We used to talk a lot about time management. That’s still valid but it’s shifted to this notion that whatever has your attention ends up dictating your priorities, goals and what you’re going to achieve on the back end.

I’ve been talking about reclaiming your attention for some time. It’s become an even bigger need in our leaders. The last years have built all sorts of bad habits in all of us in terms of giving up our attention to outside events, various emergencies and crises that have been happening. That’s why for me, it is a good time to begin to take ownership of that and reclaim your tension.

Your attention ends up dictating your priorities. Click To Tweet

We’ve built all sorts of bad habits in 2020 and 2021. I would argue that we already had those bad habits and dysfunctional behaviors. What happened was the pandemic amplified it. We couldn’t stand behind that tree and hide behind what wasn’t working. We were able to get marginal success and that overshadowed the things that were holding us back. That’s flip-flopped and that tree is tiny. I can’t hide behind it.

In particular, it’s one of those habits or mindsets that’s exposed. What made it worse was the pursuit of the false urgency of the day-to-day. For many entrepreneurs and leaders in their organizations, it’s way more fun and exciting to put out fires daily than it is to sit down and spend time on those areas where you add value, to think about the medium and the long term direction of your team and the development of your people. Those aspects and issues tend to have a longer payoff cycle.

They get moved to the side because a customer sent us a snide or snarky email or somebody on our team’s got a problem or a challenge. It’s like, “We’ll come back to that. We’ll get to that important stuff. They’re important but not urgent stuff. Later on, let me focus on that.” That, coupled with a general shift in humanity towards the pursuit of short-term payoffs, meant that there are a lot of leaders that are stuck at runway level, constantly putting out fires. You can see where it comes from, how it makes you feel wanted, valuable, needed and useful.

If you spend all your day putting out fires, you get to go home at the end of the day and go, “I put in a good shift. I did some good stuff. I can see the results. I saved the world. The problem is I got to get up tomorrow and do the same thing.” It gets us caught in a cycle of mediocrity that I talk about in the book where you might be doing good work, okay work but you’re not doing the work that has the biggest impact because you’re constantly stuck in this cycle of day-to-day firefighting.

You talked about this whole false urgency. Many companies and people got caught up with that during the pandemic. Some saw this as an opportunity to step back and look at things differently, not the urgency that created the opening to take a step back and be more strategic. As we talk about attention, it’s all about who controls your attention and how you can control your attention.

Part of the problem is that it was a huge discovery for me that we’re all control-freak. The problem is that we have this weird sense of exhausting ourselves trying to control the things that we can’t. When it comes to the things that we can control, we like attention. For instance, we give up where it’s learned helplessness. We’re like, “We’ve tried and we can’t control it.” We shift from all that effort and obsession to control to the opposite with is apathy and just let it happen. What do you think about that?

Think about the number of interruptions that any leader-entrepreneur person gets daily. The average person gets upwards of 120 emails a day. I was writing this morning that email is the antithesis of work that has meaning and impact. You never get to the end of the day and go, “I nailed it with that subject line. We got into innovative and creative ideas.” It feels bureaucratic and draining your enjoyment out of it.

Dave McKeown | Take Back Your Attention

Take Back Your Attention: The Self-Evolved Leader: Elevate Your Focus and Develop Your People In a World That Refuses to Slow Down

To your point, we almost said, “That’s the way that it is.” Whether it’s somebody that works in a large organization and says, “I have to respond to every email that comes in,” or whether it’s an entrepreneur that says, “There might be some gold in there.” All of those are stories that we tell ourselves. There is always that’s fear of control that we have. When you find yourself in that place of learned helplessness, it’s usually because you’ve given up pushing against the outside of that sphere.

There are small things that anybody can do to reclaim their attention to say, “I’m going to try to make this marginally better for myself so that I can buy some more time to focus on the things that I enjoy that have more impact and meaning, that ultimately will help me achieve the goals that I want.” if anybody’s sitting there thinking, “I’ve seated control over it,” my first thing would be to say, “Put a pause on that thought.” You can control way more than you think. Make that commitment to start pushing against some of those false narratives that we’ve given ourselves.

It’s funny because it is one of those things we can control. In a way, that’s how we become addicted to controls. We can control by going in and responding to all these emails but they’re not important. That’s interesting. We have these mechanisms to cope so that we feel like we’re in control. The email and text messaging into this urgency is part of making ourselves feel better.

It’s like, “If I’m upset or stressed, I’ll clean. I need counters cleared so that I can have peace of mind.” People want to clear out their email and feel like that’s going to give them peace of mind. Unfortunately, it’s not focusing your time, effort and attention on the things that make the biggest difference.

I get that, even that notion of, “There might be something urgent in there.” There may be. If you were to say to yourself, “Instead of checking my email, my Slack or wherever I get my information and notifications first thing in the morning, if I took the first hour and said, ‘What’s truly important to me? What do I need to get done? What are those 2 or 3 things that will move the needle from me?’ and then spend 45 minutes doing one of those, I’ll follow up your email.”

The first thing people do when they wake up is rollover. They open up their phone and it’s news, social media and email. That dictates your day, what you focus on and your mood. It robs you of the intentionality to say, “I’m going to create a day for myself.” Take 45 minutes or 60 minutes. If you have to get up 30 minutes earlier to make it happen, by all means, do that. Focus on something that’s going to move the needle for you that day. Go and bring back that sense of control that you need in checking your emails and responding. Do even that little minor change and you’ll feel more truly in control of setting the day up for the way that you want it to unfold and unravel.

I’m a big proponent of being clear. People talk about their morning routine, also what not to do in the morning. One of them would be to grab your phone. All of those are reactionary. Your email’s reactionary. It’s like, “What came in that I can react to?” The news is reactionary. “My goodness. How am I going to respond and react to this?” You wake up and you’re training yourself to continually be reactionary. That sets the tone the whole day.

The interesting thing about morning routines is often when people start thinking about this, they’re like, “I’ve got to get up. I’ll exercise, have a good breakfast and meditate.” Do it but then they go into work mode and then it’s reactivity. Why not let that morning routine bleed in a little bit for those first 30 minutes to 45 minutes into what you declare as being the work environment? Those two places are blurring together. Being a little bit more intentional about that can help.

There are a couple of things to reclaim your attention. What are some things that you suggest for people to be aware that their attention is elsewhere? Awareness is first. What are some things that you found helpful?

The first most helpful thing to do is to take an audit of everything that’s currently got your attention. Conduct an attention scan, which is nothing more complex than sitting down with a bit of paper and writing out what are the lists of things that are top of mind for you. That can be your to-dos, projects you’re working on, conversations you need to have, relationships you need to tend to and deadlines that are coming up. You’re going through that exercise of getting all of that out in your head.

You have more control over your life than you think. Click To Tweet

David Allen, one of the great founders of time management practices, says, “Your brain is for having ideas, not holding them. For every idea that you try to hold in your head, you get less of the headspace to be able to think creatively.” Getting that all out, looking at it and saying, “This is everything that’s got my attention. How do I begin to then build a system that allows me to tick through these in a way that gets the work done that needs to get done efficiently, effectively on time?” Attention scan, number one.

The second most valuable thing that you can do is to build a series of recurring buckets. If you’re a leader of a team, ensure that you have regular meetings with each of the people on your team and your boss. You can drop items into the need to get dealt with in those areas of implementation. You’d be amazed by the number of people. Something comes into them and it’s a new interruption. They think, “I’ve got to handle this. I just don’t know where or how. I’ll deal with it and get it off.”

You end up in a position where if you’ve ever trained to play tennis, you’re just standing. Baseball even, you’re standing in front of a ball machine, constantly whacking balls over the net and the balls will never stop. One of the first things that I teach leaders to do is take all those truly non-urgent things and put them into those recurring buckets. Set them into your agendas. Deal with them at the point at which they come, doing those two things, getting a grasp of everything that’s got your attention. Building those buckets that you can put things into.

Thirdly, as best as possible, minimize the areas of new inputs into your life. Sitting down with the key people in your life saying, “Here are the tools that we’re going to use to communicate with each other.” The purpose that each of those is going to have. You’ll be amazed at the number of teams that use email, phone calls, text messages, Slack messages, IM system and Morse code. There’s no protocol around that. There’s no definition for why or how you would use something. It seems so trivial. It’s like, “Why does it matter?” It doesn’t until you get drawn into every single one of those, depending on how somebody wants to communicate.

It’s funny. We’re so sympatric in that. I talk about that as well. It’s not just one app binging and specting. It’s WhatsApp, Skype and Slack. Especially when they have these multiple channels where groups are chatting about and you’re expected to stay up on what the groups are talking about. That can get so overwhelming and time-consuming that it takes people’s attention away from what it is that they need to be doing.

It has two additional impacts as a result of it. There’s the multichannel aspect of it. There’s also the added temptation to then get taken down another rabbit hole. If you only check your email on your computer but somebody’s pinging you on WhatsApp on your phone, every time we pick up on WhatsApp, you’re like, “Let’s see what’s going on with the news. I’ll see what’s going on here.” Before you know it, you wasted some time there.

Dave McKeown | Take Back Your Attention

Take Back Your Attention: When you’re stuck in the cycle of day-to-day firefighting, you won’t be able to work on tasks that have the biggest impact.


As Cal Newport talks about, you get that attention residue that stays with you as you move from one context to the next. That makes it very difficult for you to get back up to speed with what it was that you were working on. Minimizing the number of inputs can help provide more of an external set of parameters that allow you to stay focused.

I often talk about synchronous communication in long form and short form. Somewhere in that grid or all of how you need to communicate with your team, take each four boxes and say, “This is what we use for this box. This is the tool that we use for short-form asynchronous communication. These are the four tools that we’re going to use.” Self-police it and say, “Don’t send me a text message if we’ve agreed that we use Slack. That’s going to set a channel and a chain between you and I that’s not within that protocol.”

That’s a huge problem. I have a client that has all these different channels. They have to have this one because they work overseas and all the excuses that I got as to why they can’t narrow these channels down. There’s not that much of a difference between WhatsApp and Skype. It doesn’t have multi-channels and all these different types of things.

The thing is that people don’t hold the line. We are terrible at setting boundaries. When somebody does something, we want to be flexible and work with them. We don’t say, “Don’t send me that over that channel,” or not respond to them. How do you deal with that when we’re not taking ownership of making that system work?

You’ve got to build in a short, sharp but semi-regular review process of the communication protocol that you build with your team. At least in the early stages, anywhere between once a month to once every 90 days, bring everybody in your team together and say, “What on these tools are working? What is not working so well? What tools have crept into our use on why?”

The why is the important one because it’s this and that and the other. What changes do we need to make as a result? The change cannot be, “We’ll continue to add and create new tools because it benefits this or that person or somebody’s going to get stroppy.” There’s got to be a valid reason behind that but it’s like you’re trying to build any norm into a team.

Distraction robs you of intentionality. Click To Tweet

If you’re not good at self-policing at the moment, you have to build an accountability section. It doesn’t have to be a long-drawn-out process. It doesn’t have to be in any way looking to point the finger of blame if things have happened. The reality is, any new thing with your team, you’re going to agree on an initial set of tools that you’re going to use. You’ll stack hands on it. You don’t know whether that’s the complete set or not.

Work through it. Let it breathe in the wild. Be intentional about what you do about it from there on in. Only allow something in if there’s a very good reason for it. If the reason is that so and so over there needs it, you might need to go and have a difficult conversation with so and so about how to negotiate, the use of that tool as it pertains to your team, the productivity and the focus that you have.

What if the problem’s the leader who sets the check-ins? What does the employee do when it’s the leader that’s not being consistent and not following through?

It’s like any challenge that an employee has with a leader. It doesn’t matter what topic we’re talking about. We’re talking about attention management, coaching, accountability and difficult conversations. Somebody invariably, at the end of a workshop or a keynote, will come up to me and say, “This is all great but my leader XXX.”

There’s usually a line of inquiry. The first one we alluded was, “When was the last time you tested that assumption?” versus, “This is not a narrative that you’re telling yourself.” Quite often, the answer is, “You’re right. I haven’t tested it.” Go test it. The true key is that your leader would not allow you to do this or the other.

There are some behaviors that the leader is exhibiting that are negative that are preventing whatever changes you’re trying to drive through. The next question is, “Have you sat down and explained to them that this is what’s happening and this is the impact?” Almost always, the answer is, “Not really. Not in so many ways.” It’s time for you to have a bit of a challenging conversation with your leader.

If you want to make this change and the leader is truly the roadblock, your one shop at making this difference is to go, look them in the eyes and say, “Boss, when you exhibit this behavior, this is the impact and result.” There are a couple of different results from that conversation. Your successful result would be, they say, “I didn’t even know. Thank you for sharing that part. How do we move forward?” It’s awesome if that happens.

The second result may be, they go, “I don’t notice that. I don’t think it’s a problem.” You probably have your answer, which is your leader’s never going to change. That shifts you in their different decision-making mode, which is, if you have all of the facts in front of you, you’ve tested your assumptions. You’ve asked for somebody to change their behavior in an adult way and they’re not going to do it, it’s up to you to make an adult decision around whether that’s an adequate work environment in which you want to stay in.

If it is, unfortunately, you have to find a way to push through a degree of impact that you can have within those circumstances or you make a decision, “This isn’t right. It isn’t good for me. I don’t want to be here.” Too many people get caught in a third scenario. They don’t want to push the boundaries to see if it’s there. They don’t want to have a difficult conversation.

Dave McKeown | Take Back Your Attention

Take Back Your Attention: Minimize the areas of new inputs into your life.


They don’t want to make the change and leave. They want to sit there, moan, complain and put up excuses for why things will never change. That’s not a great place to be. It’s not healthy for you, your mindset and your team. Back to that notion of taking back control, do what you can to understand the environment that you’re in. You’ve got all of the data. You can make an informed choice about what you want to do about it.

It’s important because a lot of people are saying, “It’s not me.” Often, I find the same thing. You can’t blame, point a finger or complain about something that you haven’t yet stood up to take ownership for. What’s your role in this? Once you own that, then you can take those steps. Back to attention, what else did you want to share around that idea and that necessity of taking back our attention?

There are a couple of things that you will get out of it at the back end that you need to keep in mind about why you would want to do this. A lot of people who are reading might go, “That sounds reasonable. I do get distracted and all of that. So, what?” Here is the main thrust or set of benefits that you get if you can reclaim your attention. Getting distracted by the day-to-day keeps you at runway level.

It’s very hard for you to think about the medium and long-term direction of your team. The longer you stay at runway level, the harder it is to break out. It means you do get caught in that cycle of mediocrity of not delivering what you need. If you can find a way to reclaim your attention, you’ll start to notice that your focus can shift a little bit.

You start to think less about the day-to-day and the week-to-week and more towards month-to-month, quarter-to-quarter, maybe even year-to-year. Coupled with that, you give yourself the headspace to think a little bit more creatively and innovatively. How our brain works when we’re putting out fires daily and executing, it’s very different than the way our brain works whenever we’re sitting down to think more innovatively and creatively.

Keep in mind the why behind what you’re doing. Click To Tweet

You’ll find that you end up achieving more in a shorter time. You end up working less hard if you can reclaim your attention because you focus on the truly important things that make the difference. That usually clears up a bit of time. If anybody is reading this going, “This is what I want to do,” I would encourage you to start with that attention scan. What’s on your mind? Build those buckets that you can begin to deal with some of those new inputs that come into. Build that shared communications protocol with your team. The final thing here is to get good at true prioritization.

We have allowed anybody to assign everything as truly urgent to us ultimately. Get good at saying, “That’s not that urgent or important.” Getting good in the moment of saying, “We can deal with this at this point and in this place with these people,” rather than feeling that you’ve got to swarm to anything that comes into your purview.

Those are the four steps. Is that what’s encompassed in this new course that’s coming out? Is that available in the course, walking the people through those four steps and maybe holding them accountable to seeing them all the way through?

The course will take you step-by-step through building your attention management system. It deals with two aspects of it. It deals with your distractions, what takes you in a direction based on your behaviors and habits, also how to manage and mitigate those new inputs. I designed it to be super practical. I didn’t want it to be particularly heavy with theory. I wanted it to be something that somebody could put in place as soon as they go through. They’ll walk through those four things that we talked about. There are a couple of other additional bits around it. We talk about doing daily and weekly reviews. I go deeper into that prioritization matrix that I talked about and how to get good at assigning that true priority to it.

Thank you so much for sharing some of that here. It’s so important because we’ve got technology drawing our attention away, the fact that we’re working from home and there are so many distractions and things that are in that environment. COVID, that’s forever here, changing and addressing emotionally, as well as maybe you’re out for two weeks because you’re sick and so forth. Thank you so much for being here. Where do they find this?

If you go to, you’ll see the course there and some of the other courses that we have coming out in 2022. There’s also a short little assessment that you can take to assess how scalable your leadership is.

Dave McKeown | Take Back Your Attention

Take Back Your Attention: If you’re not good at self-policing at the moment, you’ll have to build an accountability section.


Thank you so much for being here.

Penny, thank you for having me. It was great to continue the conversation. I appreciate it.

My pleasure.

Thank you all for being here. This is an important topic. You know that you stink at it because we all stink at it. We are so easily squirrel attracted to those things around us. Our attention is so easily swayed. Part of it is the things that we talked about here. It’s getting crystal clarity on what is so important. Dave’s given us a system to manage our attention.

Systems and tools support us to focus on what we want to do and what is good for us versus what’s the easy path. Our brains are designed to follow that easy path. We have to short-circuit the system and reroute the wiring so that we do what’s best for us. Where you’re going to get the most success and the greatest focus for 2022 is to take back your attention. We’ll see you in the next episode.


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About Dave McKeown

Dave McKeown | Take Back Your AttentionDave McKeown helps individuals, teams, and organizations achieve excellence by doing the ordinary things extraordinarily well. He is the CEO of Outfield Leadership and author of the Amazon best-selling book The Self-Evolved Leader – Elevate Your Focus and Develop Your People in a World That Refuses to Slow Down.