Human survival used to depend on being aware of everything around us, from predators to deadly weather.
These days the “threat” is a constant flood of information. More texts and emails. More calls. More news. More entertainment. More everything.
The result? We are trying to pay attention to so many things that we are losing the ability to focus for long on anything. According to one study, the average person loses concentration after eight seconds. A goldfish’s attention span is nine seconds.
The ability to maintain attention is key to decision-making and performance. Research has found a correlation between focus and career advancement.
Focus is vital to building strong relationships. When you give people your undivided attention, you are communicating a powerful message of caring and respect. But when you check your phone or look over their shoulder, you are saying, “You are not important to me.”
With work and commitment, anyone can sharpen their ability to Be There. Here are five tips to improve your focus skills.
1. Know your priorities
Say you’re in a meeting. Your phone constantly lights up with messages. You can’t deal with any of them now, so each update floats in your head, creating secondary concerns that keep you from focusing on your main priority.
Information is vital but it’s not how much you absorb that matters. Take back control of what you pay attention to. Start choosing, not reacting.
Start your day by writing down what you will accomplish today. What will it take to accomplish your goal?
What might get in your way? Know what tempts you, then have the courage to push it aside. Often the key to success is not what you add, but what you subtract.
Leaders, are you helping your team stay focused on the big picture? Or are you asking them to deal with issues that don’t really matter?
Make sure what you’re measuring is directly related to your priorities. Measurement is useful when it guides you to take meaningful action.
2. One thing at a time
Some consider multitasking a valuable talent. But studies show multitasking can hurt performance and make you more prone to mistakes.
Neuroscientists have found when you try to learn while multitasking, the new information is stored in the wrong region of your brain, making it harder to retrieve and remember.
To maintain focus, some teams hold “distraction-free” meetings of an hour or less. No laptops or phones allowed. Everyone is asked to Be There, concentrating on the challenge at hand.
The more frequently your attention shifts from one thing to another, the more your focus “muscles” atrophy. Rebuild them with regular workouts. Start with short periods, forcing yourself to stay on task, gradually increasing your endurance.
3. Put your distractions “away”
If you want a livable home, you don’t leave your clothes lying everywhere or let dishes pile up in the sink.
It’s the same at work. Declutter your workspace. Close apps on your computer when you aren’t using them. Clear old papers off your desk.
Get rid of old notes from meetings or brainstorms left hanging on the wall. There’s nothing worse than being distracted by things you didn’t get done. If you aren’t actively working with ideas, compile and file them, then set a time to revisit them.
Some clutter is mental. When you want to remember something, like an errand, it moves it around in your brain in a “rehearsal loop.” But if the concern is something you can’t solve now, it may keep looping until you deal with it.
If you have a worry you can’t address immediately, write it down, along with a plan to deal with it. This “relaxes” your brain so you can concentrate on being present.
4. Take a break
As with any exercise, your brain’s focus circuits need time to recover. During that time, the brain resets, often blending old memories and different ideas into new combinations. That’s why stepping away from periods of intense focus spurs creativity.
Light activity is a great way to reset your focus. Take a five-minute walk. Stretch. Breathe deeply. Take a short nap. Research shows just 10 minutes can clear mental fog and restore alertness.
While some worry that Play gets in the way of focus, making time for laughter and fun is a proven way to clear your mind for the job ahead.
5. Focus on yourself
Flight attendants remind passengers, in case of emergency, to put on your oxygen mask before helping others. It’s the same with your emotions.
Before you give your full attention to what others are feeling, you must be aware of your own emotions. Are you angry? Anxious? Your amygdala—the primitive region of your brain that responds to threats—takes over, limiting your ability to reason and maintain attention.
Ask yourself throughout the day: Is anything bothering me? What might bother me later in the day? Who do I want to “be” so I can handle those situations in the most productive way?
When you Choose Your Attitude, instead of reacting, you’ll be better prepared to focus on the attitudes of others. You’ll be less defensive. You’ll be less likely to make assumptions about others are thinking. You’ll listen more thoughtfully when someone disagrees with you.
Understand yourself first, then focus on understanding others.
Want a more focused, supportive and successful culture in your organization?