Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
Rules for focused success in a distracted world
What do the most successful business leaders, elite athletes and the most fulfilled people have in common?
The ability to focus their attention and be present to the moment.
“Where the mind goes – everything follows.”
Multitasking - A myth or reality?
To watch the security officer in Macy’s department store, Union Square, San Francisco in late 2019 was to witness attention in action. In a plain black suit, white shirt and red tie, walkie-talkie in hand, he flowed through the store, his focus always riveted on one shopper or another. The eyes of the store.
It’s a challenge, there are often hundreds of shoppers on his floor at any one time, drifting from one jewellery counter to the next, weaving through the designer brands of Prada, Gucci and Valentino scarves. As they browse the goods, he browses them.
He waltzes among the shoppers. For a few seconds he stands behind a watch counter, his eyes glued to a prospect, then swoops to a vantage point by the door, only to glide to a corner where a perch allows him to observe a potentially suspicious group.
While customers are oblivious, he scrutinizes them all. Body language, movement patterns, pace, gait, sound, touch, smell.
There’s a saying India, “When a pick pocket meets a saint all he sees are the pockets!” In any crowd, what the security officer sees are the pickpockets. His attention, like a spotlight. I saw the depth of his focus, akin to an elite athlete taking a game winning shot or a saleswoman preparing a sales deck for a final pitch. He was focus embodied.
Ten minutes later, one block south on Market Street, I saw a busy lady dressed in business attire emerging from a subway. Both phone and laptop in hand, she responds to emails in between calls and grabs a quick lunch from a street vendor. She is travelling, working, eating and socializing.
This is the image of a multitasking entrepreneur that we have become accustomed to seeing in the media. While this may look fascinating, the reality of multitasking is far from it. The security officer embodied flow, presence, ease and focused attention whilst the lady exuded clutter, stress, anxiety and distraction.
The difference? Focus. Humans are not capable of multitasking. We can not simultaneously do a number of different tasks. It may seem that the ability to rapidly switch our attention from one task to another makes us some multitasking superhuman but in reality, multitasking is just a myth.
Despite the fact that technology has enabled us to accomplish more tasks at the same time, scientists firmly maintain that multitasking remains a myth and they have indisputable data to back up this statement.
Neuroscience researchers at MIT have found, in majority cases, humans are unable to focus on more than one thing at a time. The human brain is good at deluding itself and makes us believe that switching from one task to another in quick succession accounts to paying attention to multiple things at once.
Consider writing an important work email and talking on the phone with someone you care about at the same time. It just doesn’t work. Both these tasks involve the use of communication, verbal and written. Naturally there is a conflict between these two tasks, in the scientific world, we call it interference.
All this is pretty taxing on the brain and comes at a cost - productivity.
The frontal lobe of our brain has what can be referred to as a ‘stop mechanism’. It allows us to stop a certain task and engage another one. When switching between multiple complex tasks, our brain pauses, clears information related to the first task and switches to the second one.
This behaviour was observed during MRI scans conducted by University of Michigan neuroscientist, Daniel Weissman. He noted that the ‘executive system’ of the brain conducts this activity and allows us to exert voluntary control over our behaviour.
Our brain’s frontal region also allows us to accomplish more work by ignoring distractions. This is an essential skill in the new world of constant ‘interference’ via the internet and social media platforms. The differentiating skill of the new technological age is ‘focused attention’.
Those of us who engage and develop this skill will be leaders in our fields, our families and our lives, the rest of us will have our attention controlled by the mass media, internet and ever growing technological platforms whose core purpose is to grab our attention and direct it to where ‘they’ want.
The key to being productive
By training our mind to ignore unwanted distractions and practicing focusing on a single task at a time, we can truly unlock our productivity. The realization alone that you are not meant to juggle multiple tasks will free our minds to concentrate on accomplishing a single meaningful task.
The results of deep work – focused attention without distraction for longer periods of time will lay the foundation for our success – whatever the field. When we put disciplined emphasis on working on a single task at a time, we will see remarkable results.
“Everyone knows what attention is. It is taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.”
Rules for Focused Attention
1. Eliminate distractions and make hard decisions
Elimination is the prerequisite of focus. It may seem counterproductive to let go of all those tasks that you have in mind and just pay attention to a single one but the end results speak for themselves.
When we’re trying to juggle multiple things at once, we end up doing none. Focus on a single task and we can get it completed in an efficient manner. Once we have accomplished it, our brain will be free to cater for the next task.
Don’t forget that dose of ‘feel good’ dopamine that you just got by winning over the first herculean task. Many high performers often refer to these tasks as ‘big rocks’. The ones that clear the path for all others. The resulting feeling of accomplishment, satisfaction and happiness will power you through the next item on your to do list.
2. Practice proven strategies to cultivate your own
5/25 Strategy of Warren Buffett
A befitting example of focusing and prioritizing comes from none other than the ‘Oracle of Omaha’ - Warren Buffet. This 5/25 Strategy is a simple 3 step process that helps you better allocate your time on what really matters.
A number of years ago Buffett showed his airplane pilot a simple process to set his priorities in such a way as to achieve maximum output.
Step 1: Making a list of your top 25 goals
Warren Buffett told his pilot to list down a total of 25 important career goals that he wanted to achieve during the span of his life.
Step 2: Draw a circle around the top 5 goals
Now Buffett asked him to circle the top 5 most important goals from the list. After a bit of thought, his pilot Mike Flint circled five items from the list.
Step 3: Focus only on the top 5 goals and discard the rest
Having reconfirmed that these were in fact his top 5 goals, Mike enthusiastically proclaimed that he would start working on them right away. Buffet asked him what he planned to do about the remaining 20 items that he had not circled. Mike replied that he would prioritize the first five and keep the rest as a second priority.
On hearing this, Warren Buffet famously said:
“No. You’ve got it wrong Mike. Everything you didn’t circle just became your ‘avoid at all cost list’. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.”
This story highlights just how vital it is to focus only on what you want to accomplish and let go of the rest.
*This idea has many different forms and names, including, the law of the vital few, the 80/20 rule, Pareto’s principle, and, the principle of factor sparsity.
3. Hold yourself accountable
“What gets measured gets managed.”
Measuring results and having a feedback mechanism goes a long way in keeping you focused on the task at hand and avoiding unwanted distractions. Our brains are naturally programmed with a desire to know if progress is being made towards a goal. Getting feedback is a great way to do this.
Something as simple as a journal to schedule deep work, setting a deep work output target for each block of deep work or a goal tracking app can motivate you to see that goal of yours to fruition.
Just think of when we observe our mobile fitness tracker or smart watch for the number of steps we have taken for the day. Keeping track of these small steps pushes us to complete our said target for the day.
4. Focus! Practice strategies to improve your concentration
By now you will have gathered that the core of this whole discussion comes down to the simple yet elusive word ‘Focus’.
While it may not be possible to multitask. It sure is possible to get more done by just improving our focus.
Here are a few simple yet effective strategies from the top performing clients I work with to improve your concentration and get better results.
- Set a fixed time to check your email
Checking emails constantly is a major hindrance in optimal productivity. Some of the most highly successful people have set specific times to check emails. You can check your emails at 12 noon and reply to important emails in a block. Many clients use the 3-minute rule to clear their inbox. If a task can not be complete within 3 minutes, it is filed for a deeper work block.
Setting a specific time to check emails every day will help you keep focused and avoid any unnecessary time wastages. Some clients have more than one time slot in the day depending on their work, the key is to strictly follow the decided time slot for all email correspondence. And if you don’t think this is a problem, I challenge you to take out your smartphone now! Click on ‘screen time’ and assess the average daily distraction time and pick up cadence for your email application. This often shocks us into a deeper awareness of who and what is controlling our attention.
- Turn off your notifications
Similar to what we discussed above, getting distracted every time your phone or email buzzes is a major productivity killer. Once you are distracted by that seemingly innocent notification, it takes a considerable time to regain focus. It’s best to turn off notifications and simply concentrate on the task at hand.
- Let go of your phone
Our lives have become so encompassed by mobile devices that it is no wonder that they are one of the leading culprits of our rising unproductivity and increased distraction. Famous author, Simon Sinek recounts how he constantly sees people hooked to their devices and not making any meaningful contribution at work and in life.
He follows a rule that whenever he goes out with his group of friends, they all carry only a single phone among them (for emergency calls) and everyone else leaves their phone at home.
The benefits of focusing lie far beyond the scope of our workday. When we ‘focus’ on our family and social life we foster more deep and meaningful connections that are the soul of a fulfilled life.
- Set your priority task the day before
Having a single most important ‘anchor task’ for the coming day will guide and help you create a favourable environment to accomplish that task during that specific day.
It is profoundly impactful to strategically plan our day and even week ahead, we can get right to the ‘big rocks’ through ‘deep work’ as the day/week starts. Once we have accomplished the priority task, we will flow easier into the rest of the tasks.
- Eliminate clutter
A significant boost in focus and productivity can be achieved by eliminating unwanted clutter. This clutter can be in our workspace or even be in the form of those dozens of tabs that you have opened in your browser right now! A good way to concentrate is to work in full screen mode so that our attention is not diverted by any other application icon or item.
- Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a simple form of meditation that allows us to observe our thoughts, feelings and behaviours and ultimately gain control of them. It is a skill that once developed allows us to be more focused even when we are not meditating. Mindfulness reduces stress as it develops the skill of gaining control over our thoughts and stopping our minds ruminating to the negative.
In a similar way that muscle exercises develop muscular strength, mindfulness develops mental strength. It develops this mental strength in specific regions of our brain that make a remarkable difference. It is perhaps the greatest form of mental training that we can engage in and its benefits have a multiplier effect.
It develops our ability to be present and fully engaged without judgment at each moment of our lives. Hence, we become more productive, engaging and empathic to others, truly experiencing life in a state of presence.
What will you do now?
There is conclusive proof that the human brain is not programmed for multitasking. While we are good at swiftly switching from one task to another, it must not be mistaken for multitasking.
Our best work is completed in deep 1 - 1.5-hour blocks, with a set purpose, free from all distractions.
How many of these deep work blocks can you schedule in the next week?
What are the vital tasks that you need to set aside ‘focused’ time for?
What would happen if you started completing these ‘big rocks’ first?
Are you ‘focused’ on your family?
Are you ‘present’ socially to others when you meet them?
The key to becoming the best version of ourselves is in our own hands. The choice is ours.
Inspiring Excellence works in the trenches of high performance with some of the best in the world, coaching the mindset skills that are essential to revealing human potential. Our performance coaching clients include Fortune 500 Leaders, Multinational Corporations, CEO’s, Elite Special Forces and Professional Athletes.
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