Are you focusing your attention on what matters most?

Focused on success?

Now focus your attention.

focusOne time that successful professionals turn to executive coaching is when they feel overwhelmed by a relentless barrage of “to-do” items.  For example, a client I’ll call “Jane” had just received a bonus and been recommended for promotion.  But despite a flow of kudos from her bosses, she felt like she was barely holding things together.

 I asked Jane to set up a log and keep notes about how she was using her time in the office.  After a couple of weeks she noticed two trends.  She was attending too many meetings not relevant to her top objectives.  And while she was at her desk she seldom worked on a single project for more than 10 or 15 minutes before she was interrupted by a call, email or visit from a colleague.

 Jane decided to stop saying “yes” to every request, and to exercise more control over how she spends her time and energy. One way she stays more focused on critical goals and values is that every morning she identifies a significant task, like a segment of a large project, to accomplish by day’s end.  And on her calendar she has a 60 to 90-minute work period for the key task of the day. When that time block starts, she shuts her door, takes a few deep breaths, and starts working on the day’s top task, mostly ignoring phones and email.

 When we start treating our attention as a valuable resource, it can change not only how we work but also how we live.  In his most recent book, “Focus – The Hidden Driver of Excellence,influential psychologist and prolific writer Daniel Goleman says leaders, and all the rest of us, must learn to better direct our attention if we want to get things done and live full lives.

Focusing our attention in the midst of constant distractions can be a huge challenge in today’s workplace.  But research suggests we can learn how to focus more clearly.  It turns out that attention can be trained, like a muscle.  Work it well and it grows. “Focus” is not a how-to book, offering easy tips. But in a series of essays, Goleman presents research and examples that spotlight the “elusive and under-appreciated mental faculty” of attention.

 Goleman says leadership and a well-lived life require you to be nimble at focusing your attention in three ways: on yourself, on others and on the wider world:

 Focusing on yourself:

 In his early books Goleman taught us that effective leaders typically have a high degree of “emotional intelligence.” And an essential component of emotional intelligence is self-awareness.  You are self-aware if you can recognize your moods and emotions and understand their impact on other people.  More elements of emotional intelligence are self-management, empathy and social skills like relationship building and networking.

 Goleman is intrigued by the synergy between emotional intelligence and increasingly popular approaches to training attention, like promoting “mindfulness.”  One way to understand mindfulness is to consider the alternative — mindlessness — that occurs when our minds wander and we lose track of where we are.  Mindfulness training helps us build the capacity to stay in the moment and choose where we want to send our focus.

 Goleman describes a mindfulness program where second graders learned to become more relaxed and able to focus on their work as a result of regular deep breathing exercises.  The children lie on their backs and listen quietly as they are led through deep belly breathing. They silently count “one, two, three” with each long inhalation and exhalation.  Not only can children learn in this way to be more self-controlled and aware of how they are feeling, but so can adults of any age.

 Focusing on others:

 Excellent leaders tend to be the ones who keep some focus on other people.  They try to understand things from others’ perspectives.  And they have the ability to sense what others are feeling and to recognize what they need. 

 People who lack social sensitivity are easy to spot.  They may be bullies or simply unaware of those around them.  Goleman says that as we move into leadership we must be aware of a trap.  Research suggests that as we climb up a hierarchy we tend to lose our focus on lower ranking colleagues.  But where a leader is able to maintain a balanced focus, including empathy, the result can be greater employee engagement and better team results.

 Focusing on the wider world:

 Goleman urges today’s leaders to think much more broadly, to consider the environmental and worldwide economic implications of whatever they may be doing.  He says leaders with a strong focus on the big picture are not only good listeners but also good questioners.   They step back from immediate challenges and take a longer view.  They inspire innovation by making new connections within patterns that at first may seem to be unrelated.

 Balanced leadership requires systems thinking, but it is seldom easy.  Goleman says that a blind spot in the human brain may contribute to the problem.  Our ability to focus in and fine tune is part of the apparatus that has paid off in human survival. But our brains haven’t evolved to think about huge systems, and learning to do so can be exhausting.

Sometimes it’s not easy to know where to focus, whether on immediate problems or the broader future. And learning to be more mindful or empathetic doesn’t happen overnight.  But Goleman encourages us to build the ability to focus our attention, and make better choices about where to look.


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Bev, a former lawyer and Fortune 500 executive, is an executive and transitions coach, and a leadership consultant with a broad and varied practice.

Posted in Career management, leadership Tagged with: ,
2 comments on “Are you focusing your attention on what matters most?
  1. Caryl Anne says:

    I agree that all three focuses can help lead an individual to what truly matters. You must first understand yourself and how you react to certain situations. Secondly, you must think of others because not one person is the same and there will be differences. To me, how you handle these differences will determine where you will go. Lastly, focusing on the world and making it a better place can help steer you and your company in a different direction compared to others. Anyone can help guide or coach others with these focuses in mind. Thanks for sharing

  2. Thanks for your comment, Caryl Anne. Even when it gets to be a habit, I find it useful to pause and get in touch with these 3 levels of focus.

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