Ever watch jugglers as they catch and toss balls in a loop, often incorporating more objects thrown by another juggler?
Leadership is a juggling act. At every level, from CEO to team leader of a small manufacturing shop, leaders face many demands on their attention. Phone calls about production delays, emails with this quarter's sales reports, texts about a changed meeting location--every moment brings new requests.
The ability to focus amid a sea of distractions is key to effective leadership.
Conflicting demands on a leader's attention is an age-old issue. Caesar didn't have a smart phone or laptop, but I'm sure many people tugged on his toga to be noticed. What's different about the current world of work is the flood of information brought to us by electronic devices.
Driven to Distraction
In a post several weeks ago, I mentioned Clifford Nass's research at Stanford that shows multitasking reduces our ability to concentrate. Nass and his colleagues looked particularly at people who simultaneously use many media devices - voice calls, texts, emails and computers. What they found is that "people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory, or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time." As Nass said, "They're suckers for irrelevancy, everything distracts them."
Why Focus Matters
"Sucker for irrelevancy" is not on the hundreds of lists detailing high performance leadership competencies I've reviewed from companies large and small. What capabilities are on those lists are some variation on being able to pay attention, control memory, and switch from one job to another effectively.
Working to maintain clear focus on a task - despite intrusions - consistently occupies the brain's circuitry for attention. Just like the muscles in our bodies, attention can become fatigued. Common symptoms of attention fatigue are lowered effectiveness, increased distractedness, and irritability. These symptoms also indicate depletion in the energy required to sustain neural functioning.
Leaders must be skilled at more than one type of focus. A more open and relaxed attention is called for in situations that require creativity and innovation. This is where self-awareness is crucial: monitoring attention lets us check whether our mode of attention suits the needs of the moment.
I've written extensively about focus, including the triple focus: inner focus, a focus on others, and focus on the outer world. It takes insightful self-awareness and strong skills in self-management to attend to our inner territory, the emotional worlds of others, and what is going on in the larger systems of which we are a part. If your work includes giving feedback, motivating people, and responding to changing situations in your environment, you need that triple focus.
How Leaders Can Regain Focus
In a deluge of distractions, how can leaders regain their focus on what matters, both in the moment and in the long run? The great news is that research by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers Thomas E. Gorman & C. Shawn Green indicates ten minute sessions of mindfulness of breath, three times a day, reverses the degradation in concentration common in media multitaskers.
Gorman and Green's research confirms what I've known for decades, that mindfulness is a powerful and practical tool. To help people hone their concentration, I created a series of guided exercises in Cultivating Focus: Techniques for Excellence. I invite you to try out Sensory Focus from that collection. It's a great place to start at rebuilding your concentration muscles.