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Performance, Attention and Focus

The way you and your teams pay attention and focus is crucial to achieving sustained optimal performance.

A primary task of leadership is to direct attention. To do so, leaders must learn to focus their own attention.”[1] Daniel Goleman

Optimal performance is sustainably achieving goals efficiently and effectively, to your best ability within current conditions.  To perform, individuals, teams, and organizations manage and apply situation specific technical and administrative skills, project, program, and process management, supported by relationship capabilities like communications, conflict management, decision making, and expectations management.

These capabilities rely on attention and a realistic perspective informed by positive values like objectivity and servant leadership. A realistic perspective realizes that change is inevitable and that there is uncertainty because we live and work in a complex system (our environment, organization, etc.) [2]

While attention, perspective, and values are equally important, this article focuses on attention. Let’s look at what we mean by attention, its importance, and what you can do to cultivate it.

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According to Amisha Jha, a neuroscientist, there are three kinds of attention:

  • Focused attention – directed to a specific object. It is concentration like shining a flashlight on an object, for example, a person in a conversation or work on a task. On an organizational level, focused attention directs resources to a specific project or process.
  • Open attention – seeing or being objectively aware of what is occurring in a broad expanse, mindful awareness. Open attention enables a stepping back from focus to be in touch with what is occurring in and around the object of focus.
  • Executive attention – deciding what within the field of open attention to attend to and what to do about it, regulating responses with awareness and discernment.

Objects of Attention

Objects of attention may be anything – a project, an organization, a task, presentation, thought, sound, physical sensation, or any observable phenomena.

According to Daniel Goleman focused attention has three modes: awareness of self, others, and the wider world. [3]

With self-focus, the primary objects are thoughts, physical sensations, and feelings. With other-focus, the principal objects are other people and things and their behavior.  Focus outward is diffuse open awareness without focusing on any particular object. It is seeing the big picture and disengaging from routine attentiveness to allow for creativity and exploration.

Projects are Objects

A project is an object. It focuses an organization’s attention by dedicating human effort and other resources to create or change a product, putt on an event or make a change of any kind. Effective project stakeholders are aware of the impact their actions have on their environment and the way the environment impacts the project. Executives govern to manage a portfolio of projects, avoid distractions, and choose the most effective places to focus attention.

Projects, tasks, or activities, whether performed by teams or individuals, are objects of attention. A project team focuses on the project. Teams and individuals focus on performing, attentive to the way they perform and interact, aware of what impact they are having on their environment and how their environment is affecting them, their tasks, and projects.

Why Focus Matters

Lose focus and performance suffers. Fail to be attentive to what’s going on in and around you and performance suffers.

Concentration and skillful attention elicit a Flow experience, being in the Zone, a state of optimal performance and deep relaxation.

Consider what happens when sponsors or clients lose interest in a project, they once considered important. Other “interesting” things crop up to grab their attention. Resources start getting pulled away. The project manager is less able to influence some stakeholders to fulfill commitments. Performance suffers. The same kind of thing happens when you as an individual are distracted. Performance suffers.

The more undistracted the focus the greater the quality of performance. According to Cal Newport:

“Decades of research from both psychology and neuroscience underscore that undistracted concentration is required to learn complicated information efficiently.”

“Focus also produces better results. Recent research on the attention residue effect,  for example, reveals that when you switch your attention from one target to another, there’s a residue left behind from the first target that reduces your cognitive performance for a while before fading. In other words, if you quickly check your phone or e-mail inbox, your brain will operate more slowly for the next 15 to 30 minutes.” [4]

Fatigue and Distractions Get in the Way

Attention is a natural capacity that varies in strength depending on one’s energy level and powers of concentration.

The tired mind easily slips away from objects of focus and lacks the strength to bring focus back to the object. Open attention and executive function suffer because the mind is too easily drawn to the many distractions that call to it and it is too weak to return to awareness.

It may seem relaxing to just go with the mental stream of thoughts, feelings, and external distractions. However, when you regularly allow yourself to flit from one thing to another as they randomly appear, you weaken your concentrative powers.

Improve Your Attention

Three things enhance all the aspects of attention – focus, open awareness, and executive function:

  1. Strong concentration, mindfulness, and objectivity aided by minimizing distractions and managing the ones that cannot be avoided
  2. A process and systems view that recognizes the realities of interdependence, cause and effect relationships, and continuous change
  3. Values upon which to base skillful decision making.

Exercise Your Mind

Let the practice of consciously managing distractions seep into day to day, moment to moment experience. When you notice that your focus has slipped away, make the effort to bring it back. The more you bring your mind back to a chosen object of focus, the more you strengthen your power of concentration.

There are many exercises to strengthen your power of concentration. One is to take a few minutes a day to sit quietly and count your out-breaths from one to ten. If you lose count (it is quite normal if you do), don’t beat yourself up for it. just start from one again. Don’t worry if your thoughts stream like a waterfall. Persist and the concentration will calm the mind.

Cultivate relaxed concentration. Distractions will come. Congratulate yourself for noticing and going back to the counting or whatever your object of focus is. No need to strain or over think it. Your open attention notices distraction and your executive function brings you back or lets the mind wander.

Mindfulness meditation is a highly effective means for honing your focused attention, open minded observation, and executive attention. See www.Self-AwareLiving,com for exercises and information on how to integrate meditation, and systems and process thinking into your life.


[2] For more on perspective see “Putting the Power of Process Thinking into Action[2]  and Vision And Systems View To Improve Performance[2].  For more on values and decision making see “Making Effective Decisions: What Is The Truth And How Important Is It?[2]


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George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.