September 16, 2016

It’s Stealing Your Future

May I have your attention please? Please, can I have your attention for a brief moment? In a world of digital distractions, brief is sometimes not even long enough for someone to read a headline. Today, the ability to get and maintain focus is waning and it is robbing you.

Our inability to focus and concentrate on important relationships and goals is a critical! It may be the primary obstacle to creating and sustaining meaningful personal and professional impact.

Cal Newport earned his Ph.D. from MIT, is an award winning professor and author of the best seller Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. He makes a powerful case for the fact that “focus is increasingly valuable and increasingly rare.”

Focus is rare because we are busy spending our precious time, talent and resources on low-impact activities. In many ways, we can’t help ourselves. Could it be we have created routines and adopted habits that are blocking our path to the success we desire most.

Overwhelming proof that we are losing focus:

  • Regardless of age we check our smartphones no less than every 15 minutes.  And when we are not allowed to do so anxiety rises.
  • A 2014 survey by Tata Communications showed that we spend an average of more than five hours a day on the internet. And 64% worry when they don’t have access.
  • Research demonstrates that even the presence of a cell phone can be distracting enough to affect the performance of tasks, with the detrimental effects increasing as the tasks become more complex.
  • When making a new connection or building a new relationship the presence of a phone reduces the level of trust.
  • The typical worker attends to a task for about three minutes before switching to something else. The something else is usually electronic communication and it takes about 20 minutes to return their focus to the previous task according to the research by Gloria Mark, of the University of California, Irvine.

Focus requires us to concentrate on one thing. Newport concluded that “To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction.” Research shows that “it’s impossible to process more than one string of information at a time. The brain just can’t do it.”

Why? “When we put ourselves in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, we’re not able to filter out what’s not relevant.” Thus in the absence of focus the brain’s functionality and capability is limited.

Lack of focus creates “attention residue”.

Sophie Leroy, a business-school professor at the University of Minnesota, calls it “attention residue”. In a paper titled “Why Is It So Hard to Do My Work?”, she proved that people are less productive when they are constantly moving from one task to another instead of focusing on one thing at a time.

Professor Leroy writes, “People need to stop thinking about one task in order to fully transition their attention and perform well on another. Yet, results indicate it is difficult for people to transition their attention away from an unfinished task and their subsequent task performance suffers. People experiencing attention residue after switching tasks are likely to demonstrate poor performance on that next task."

Our most precious and valuable resource is time. We just lose sight of it. We focus better when are reminded of the value of our time. Building our capability and capacity to focus is essential to positively impacting the people we love and lead.

Three focus-building strategies.

  1. Block out “focus” times on your calendar to give your full attention to your key roles and goals.
    • Block out 30, 60 or 90-minute increments. Research shows that 90 minutes is a maximum duration to maintain focus without a break. Four and one-half hours is the natural human limit for highest level of focus on a single task in a day.
    • Include actions that support your key roles and goals.
  2. Be fully present and eliminate outside distractions and interruptions. This is a powerful choice that creates focus and elevates your relationships. You'll never miss what is likely trivial or irrelevant.
  3. Schedule time for social media, news, and television. Your goal is to create boundaries that allow you to limit the information you are receiving and sending. Make it the same time every day. By putting it into your schedule you are less likely to allow it to crowd out high payoff actions.

At the Global Leadership Summit I recently attended, Chris McChesney, author of The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals, said something that jumped out at me. Chris said, “Urgency is the enemy of execution. We always underestimate the level of focus required to get the most important things done.”

Impact requires focus. Everything looks urgent when we don’t have clarity. Focus comes from clarity about who we want to be remembered by and what we want to be remembered for.

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