How to stay focused

by Maureen Collins

In 1971 Herbert Simon, the Nobel prizewinning political scientist and economist, wrote that “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”. More than 45 years on we live the truth of his words.

We focus our attention by using creative ways to deal with information overload and endless distractions. We’re now masters of multi-tasking, skipping and skimming documents and messages, and driving on auto-pilot.

Knowing where to focus is a problem; one for which Daniel Goleman in his book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, provides guidelines based on recent research in neuroscience. Goleman identifies three areas where leaders and entrepreneurs should focus their attention:

1. On yourself

Your body continually sends you signals; changes in how you’re breathing, tension in your muscles, a gut feeling; these are all signals that indicate how you feel about a situation. A lifetime of noticing these signals adds up to intuition. It’s not always right, but as many of us know, it is an important input into our decision-making around selecting employees, choosing partners, deciding on the direction of a strategy or investing in a new product.

Emotionally intelligent people also pick up on signals that come to them from others. When you notice subtle signs of feedback, agreement or disagreement, approval or disapproval, you become more aware of how you are viewed by others, and are able to act with more authenticity.

2. On others

Emotional empathy is the ability to focus on non-verbal signals such as facial expression,
pitch and tone of voice, gestures and posture that provide clues as to how others feel. Emotional empathy is essential for effective relationships with clients, partners, or people you coach and mentor. It also helps you recognise what people need from you, their fears and concerns, and enables you to see the broader implications of situations and decisions.

Most of us are better at pushing our own ideas than focusing on the wishes, intentions and feelings of those around us. Goleman identifies cognitive empathy as the ability to understand another person’s perspective. It allows you to negotiate around differences of opinion, instead of being drawn into confrontational argument, and to gain real commitment to solutions and action plans.

The more distracted you are, the more likely you are to miss the subtle cues around you and your impact on others. Interestingly, research shows that as people rise through the ranks and gain power, their natural inclination is to pay less attention to people lower down in the organisation. It requires a deliberate shift in focus to avoid overlooking valuable input and smart ideas from junior people.

3. Focus on the wider world

The third area to focus on is the wider world. Entrepreneurs must focus on the job at hand and at the same time find ways to identify and exploit business opportunities. But exhaustion, stress and distraction often prevent us from giving anything better than reflex responses to situations that appear familiar to us.

Creativity and innovation come from attention to a problem, open awareness of possible solutions, followed by a period of time which allows our minds to play with ideas. We are all familiar with the creative ideas that arise while we are cooking a meal or walking the dogs. It takes self-awareness and self-control to manage your time and energy so that you have time to focus on creative responses to problems and opportunities.

The good news about emotional intelligence is that these skills can be practiced and perfected. It’s worth learning how to master your attention so you can focus on those areas where you will be most effective.