To Focus …or Not to Focus?
The essential question you should ask yourself if you want to achieve Success, Satisfaction, Performance and Happiness
Dalai Lama, Michael Jordan, Serena Williams, Indra Nooyi (CEO PepsiCo), Warren Buffet, Ginni Rometty (CEO IBM), Stephen King, Larry Page (co-founder Google), Jack Welsh (ex-CEO GE), Steve Jobs, Angela Merkel… all said that focus is one of the fundamental skills they developed to achieve what they dreamt about. A recent Harvard study confirms that.
…in maximum 7 seconds our brain decides whether it is worth paying attention or not to a thought, to an idea, to a conversation, to the next action in our to-do list. Often this decision is made without us being conscious…. either our brain connects with the topic ….or it disregards it.
If the task requires effort, conscious attention, most probably our brain will move to the next thought in one or two seconds….. until our brain finds an easy one where no effort is required…… this is how almost all of us work……and the sad thing is that our brain is curious by nature…but with the years…. most things around us become routine ….so our brain loses interest in a few seconds ….. at the end of the day, our brain can have up to 50.000 thoughts !!!
But if the connection happens…. and our brain decides to pay attention … then it can be captured and kept focused for minutes and sometimes hours – it is what some people call being in the “bubble” or in the “zone” and I call, being “focused”…..
…..the other interesting link is that there is research from Harvard that says that the more we focus, ….the more we perform, ….the more satisfied we are with ourselves … and even more important… the happier we are….yet as explained, nature and our brain, drive us very strongly to disorder, to being unfocused…. What an incredible Paradox.
Not much attention has been given on the importance that Focus has as a core skill in our lives
In fact, I don’t recall having someone telling me during my youth the importance of focus. The same goes for the management world. We all have heard and are familiar with concepts like motivation, leadership, stress, communication…. yet, very few of us are familiar with the concept of focus and the role it plays in our ability to achieve success, be productive, be happy.
In the graph below we can see that it is only in the last 20 years that Focus has become an important word in our day-to-day world, and interestingly this happens during the same period as when technology has “assaulted” our lives.
There are three main types of “Focus”
There is confusion on what we mean by being focused. The concepts are often mixed-up. Through my research I have identified three different types of focus, all of them with diverse characteristic and benefits, yet interrelated to some extent.
1. Focus = Concentration => the human brain has difficulty focusing on multiple things when each requires “conscious attention”. Concentration it is the time we spend doing one task dedicating full conscious attention without interruptions of any kind. Meaning that you start with the task (for example, working on a presentation that you have to give in a week’s time on the status of your project) and you complete it without talking to someone else, receiving a visit, calling someone, looking at your emails, phone, sms, WhatsApp, Viber, Facebook, twitter, Instagram, google+, ..
Challenges => with today’s intrusion of technology, it is a huge challenge to work uninterrupted on a task, and it is just going to become worse and worst. And as explained above, our brain tends to be “lazy”, looking for quick satisfaction and easy tasks, and technology is great at providing that great instant gratification.
Research => A recent Harvard University study showed that human beings are by nature unfocused. At any point, an average of 50 percent of the population is not focused on what they are doing. Meaning that I you are running a business of 10.000 employees, 5.000 of them will have their minds wondering. In addition, 30 to 40 percent of employees’ time in the workplace is spent tending to unplanned interruptions and then reconstituting the mental focus the interruption caused. This was not the case 20 years ago, simply because the tools of interruption were not so plentiful.
Benefits of concentration => productivity, growth, accomplishment, satisfaction.
“There should be no telephone in your writing room. Eliminate any possible distraction.”, Stephen King, best-selling author
2. Focus = Expertise => Focus is the reason for specialization. We’re more efficient doing the same thing over and over than we are switching among different tasks. Everybody has an area where they can excel at one point in their lives. I suggest starting broad, trying different areas, industries, countries, but at one point you need to choose one area that you will be spending a big part of your 40+ years of working life. You can make mistakes in your choices but don’t be afraid of failure. I always say that failure is like a mini-MBA for free, you can learn a lot from failure, often more than from success. Unfortunately in Europe failure is considered bad, something to avoid at any cost, while in other more positive cultures failure is considered as experience.
It is important to note that specialization doesn’t necessarily mean one functional expertise (finance, marketing,…), you can focus on culture, change, innovation, an industry, a country, a sport, ….. but the aim is that you are good at what you do, that it adds value and that hopefully it is in your passion (you just don’t want to be doing something all day that you don’t like a lot).
Challenges => the main difficulty is to find, and focusing on, your passion. Sometimes it is a question of time, sometimes is an activity that started when you were a kid, sometimes your passion will not provide you enough income to have a decent life, but sooner or later, you should be able to see it very clearly and connect the dots.
Research => there is a belief that says that to become an expert, to master a skill, you need to spend 10.000 hours of learning and practice, so between 5 to 10 years of dedication. I don’t think it is applicable to everything but definitely there is some truth in it. the most successful sport or music start, they always excel on one single area. Very few professional football players, like Messi o Ronaldo, will reach professional level in any other sport. Tiger Woods will also never be as good in other sport as he is in golf. The same applies to musicians, doctors, lawyers, architects and most of the professions.
Benefits of specialization => accomplishment, growth, satisfaction, happiness, recognition.
”If you find a job in your area of passion, you will not need to work any day of your life.”, Confucius
3. Focus = Objectives => learning to say ‘no’ is one of the most important skills to remain focused. Yet many people are not used to say ‘no’, they are afraid of hurting feelings, losing friends, … In addition, when you make choices and you say ‘no’ to some ideas, you might be missing a great opportunity, so better to try it out, just in case, right? Some management gurus say that in order to implement a strategy, you need to work and stick to it around 7 years. If you change it on the way, you need to start counting again. Same applies to individuals, they tend to have too many goals and change them as soon as they encounter a problem.
Challenges => in a fast changing world, where there is high pressure to deliver returns in the short term, where communication moves at speed of the light, it is very hard to choose and to stick to just a few objectives waiting till they are achieved. Most of the leaders will bet in many different objectives and initiatives, hoping that one will make them and their companies successful. This leads to change in objectives in the middle of the way, adding new ones, removing old ones,… and nothing is achieved in the end.
Research => there is a theory based on the diminishing return formula which says that if you have between 1 to 3 objectives, there are good chances that you achieve them all three. If you set between 4 to 10 objectives, there are good chances that you make two. And if you have more than 10 objectives, there are good chances that you achieve zero.
Benefits in a few objectives => achievement, clarity, satisfaction.
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”, Steve Jobs
Achieving one of these areas of focus will already bring you significant improvement in your life. Mastering all of the three types of focus is a huge challenge but it is when you could reach your most ambitious dreams.