If your attention is scattered, lost in a blizzard of interruptions like emails, text messages, attractive passersby, or a thousand juicy thoughts and mental images, you are not likely to be all that effective. If your attention is focused on the wrong thing for the situation at hand, for example on your personal objective as opposed to how a co-worker may be feeling or on the way your objective might affect the project or organization as a whole, then you are not likely to be all that effective.
What is Being Focused?
What does it mean to focus or to be focused? Focus is directing attention in a chosen way at a chosen object. We can focus with a lens to home in on a minuscule particle or a wide expanse or anywhere in between.
When we focus our mind, we can concentrate on a single object, word, sound or idea, bringing our awareness to that one thing and filtering out distractions. Alternatively, we can open our attention to a sequence of events in a process or a process within a system of processes as expansive as the universe. In all cases, we are filtering out distractions that might take the mind off on a little journey to a place that we have not consciously chosen to go.
Everyone gets distracted. The ability to focus hinges on the ease at which one identifies distractions and attention returned to focus on what you choose.
If you are at a meeting, ideally you would be focused on the meeting’s content. A thought might arise, triggered by something someone said, that reminds you of the time you encountered a problem in the past. You might note the thought, maybe even jot down a reminder about it, and return your attention to the proceedings.
Alternatively, you might begin thinking about that experience, how you responded then, the result, and how you wish you had responded. Your mind may go off on tangent after tangent as thoughts trigger new thoughts and lead you down a meandering path until something brings you back to the meeting. Your remembrances have taken your attention from what is happening at the meeting.
Taking it a step further, you might bring up your past experience as a point in the conversation. If it is not relevant to the meeting, it can take the entire meeting off on a tangent, and depending on the quality of the facilitation, off on multiple tangents.
Sometimes you just lose attention and space out, not thinking about anything in particular. An idle mind, at the right time and in the right place, can be quite healthy and useful, but not in the middle of a meeting or when you are performing a task that requires full attention.
Where and When to Focus Awareness
According to Daniel Goleman, "Every leader needs to cultivate a triad of awareness - an inward focus, a focus on others and an outward focus." Focusing inward and focusing on others helps cultivate the awareness needed to be responsive rather than reactive. For example when focusing inward, there is a greater likelihood that you will notice the cues to your negative emotions like anger and fear and have an opportunity to accept them and not react impulsively. Focusing on others allows you to notice that someone may be having a negative or positive reaction to something you have said or done. Your awareness of others gives you the opportunity to inquire and adapt so you can cultivate collaboration as opposed to unhealthy conflict.
Focusing outward enables both local action and the ability to see the big picture, think strategically, and assess the consequences of local decisions on the organization or project as a whole. Outward focus is action oriented. It consists of the focus on exploiting current circumstances and systems thinking, the ability to see world as a system of systems in which any change anywhere can affect the system anywhere. Systems thinking is oriented towards strategy while the narrower focus is tactical. A critical success factor for effective performance is the ability to shift between a tactical outward focus directed to the job at hand, to a broader one that supports innovation and the ability to explore the results of local action.
Andrew Smart, the author of Autopilot: The Art & Science of Doing Nothing, might suggest adding a fourth awareness - doing nothing or spacing out. Concentration inhibits blood flow to certain parts of the brain that become active when not focusing on a specific task in what is referred to as the Default Mode or Resting State Network. This mode is instrumental in the AHA moments that occur when the brain "is turned off". The reality is that the brain is not really turned off, it is just operating in a different way. This resting state enables the smooth movement between more directed focus whether inward, towards others or outward.
Being focused is a dynamic process that involves making a conscious effort to stay with a chosen object of attention. There is a natural moment-to-moment interplay among the modes of attention. The mind naturally shifts inward, to others and outwards, with the resting state providing the background capability to let the process unfold without unnecessary effort.
How do you get better at focusing?
The ability to focus requires rest and relaxation, healthy diet, and the management of stress.
The practice of mindfulness meditation enhances the natural capacity to focus on the right things at the right time. It is a technique that requires some instruction to get the basics and then the applied effort to regularly practice. Instruction is best obtained in a class from a qualified instructor. If you are in or around New York City you can contact NY Insight Meditation Center (NYIMC.org), otherwise check the web for mindfulness or insight meditation centers in your area.
Meditation sharpens the powers of concentration that enables you to stay on a chosen object, whether it be inward, on others or outwards. Mindfulness is enhanced so you are able to discern more clearly and objectively what is happening in and around you. The combination of concentration and mindfulness gives you the ability to choose your focus and actions; to be intentionally responsive rather than reactive.
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