Learn to Focus
A few weeks ago the pilots of Northwest Airlines Flight 188 from San Diego to Minneapolis overshot their destination by 150 miles. Reportedly they were distracted during an intense discussion over a new crew scheduling system and lost track of their location. Although it is unclear what really happened, the bizarre incident confirmed our worst fear – these experienced aviators weren’t paying a lick of attention to flying the airplane!
You may not be operating at 30,000 feet but you do hold people’s lives in your hands. Not only patients, but employees as well. If you’re running around the office like the proverbial chicken-without-a-head, it’s time to stop. You may think of yourself as efficient, but others are likely to see you as scattered, self-absorbed, and uncaring. These perceptions are counterproductive if your goal is to create followership.
We live in a world of interruptions and constant partial attention. Multitasking has become a workplace and even a household buzzword as e-mails, pagers, cell phones and other technological advances push us into a 24/7 lifestyle – we’re “on” 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This constant life-on-the-go can make people feel a lack of control over their lives. Research from technology sociologist Gloria Mark indicates that the average worker is interrupted every 11 minutes on the job. Furthermore it is estimated that those same workers need about 25 minutes to return to the original task. The Center for Creative Leadership surveyed senior executives in Fortune 500 companies who stated that they are interrupted every 30 to 40 minutes. The bottom line is that long stretches of focused work are rare in today’s organizations.
It’s probable that even as you’re reading this you’re feeling pressured to hurry up because you have so much on your plate. Your to-do list may be several pages long. You’re overflowing with commitments, obligations, responsibilities and activities, many that you didn’t even put there yourself. No wonder you can feel like your mind is going to explode! When I talk with Doctors, they often tell me that they feel like they can't get anything done, even though they're trying their best. Although they have a written to-do list, they also keep a running tab of all the things they have to do in their head. Many feel overwhelmed and stressed. Some feel inadequate.
The skill of focus is the capacity to maintain attention to a situation or task despite distractibility, fatigue or boredom. Ironically research evidence indicates that multitasking actually erodes, rather than enhances, productivity. As people divide their attention between two even seemingly simple tasks - reading their e-mail, for instance, while talking on the phone - comprehension, concentration and short-term memory suffer. Switching from one job to another doesn’t work any better. It actually eats up more time than waiting to finish one job before beginning the next - an inefficiency that increases as the tasks at hand become more complicated.
Attention is a finite resource. The Chinese said it 3000 years ago - The mind can only be at a one place at a time. Technology has over promised and under delivered for years. It has not dramatically improved anything; it has simply added more work to the same amount of time. If you’re going to learn to focus better the first step is to admit that too much multi-tasking is not good for you. There’s a lot to be said about mindfulness. Second, do the most important things first. Just focus on those and nothing else. Update your to-do list every day. Limit it to only five of the most important things you must get done.
If you’re an avid emailer (or ‘crack-berrier’), check your messages on a fixed schedule. Don’t go there every few minutes. De-activate the sound that accompanies each new message. Know what time you work best. For me, it’s always the early morning. Others prefer late at night. Whatever your natural biorhythms, work around that.
Keep a journal or at least set aside think-time. Successful leadership requires reflection and planning. Self-relaxation practices such as yoga, meditation, and T’ai Chi all emphasize quieting the mind. The skill of focusing enables you to be more productive. Paradoxically, when you slow down you speed up.
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