Simple Strategies to Help Focus

In today’s always-on, information-overloaded world, it can be hard to stay focused throughout the day. How often do you find yourself distracted by inner chatter during meetings? Or how often do you find that emails are pulling you away from more important work? We’ve surveyed and assessed more than 35,000 leaders from thousands of companies across more than 100 countries, and found that 73% of leaders feel distracted from their current task either “some” or “most” of the time.

simple strategies

We also found that 67% of leaders describe their minds as cluttered, which means they have a lot of thoughts and a lack of clear priorities. As a result, 65% of respondents fail to complete their tasks. The biggest sources of distraction are: demands of other people (26%); competing priorities (25%); general distractions (13%); and too big of a workload (12%). Not surprisingly, 96% of leaders we surveyed said that “enhanced focus” would be valuable or extremely valuable.

While those numbers are alarming, they also represent a massive potential for improved performance and effectiveness. If there is one secret to effectiveness, said leadership pioneer Peter Drucker, it’s concentration. In our age of information overload, this is truer now than ever before.

The ability to apply a calm, clear focus to the right tasks — at the right time, in the right way — is the key to exceptional results. Even one second of misplaced focus can mean wasted time or worse missing a key opportunity like a facial cue from a client during a tough negotiation.

One of the CEOs we interviewed, Jean-Francois van Boxmeer of Heineken, put it this way: “My role does not allow for a lack of focus. I can’t afford to be distracted. I must be on point. I have trained my focus while at work for 15 years, moment-to-moment. I feel the brain is like a muscle, and I exercise it all the time.”

In fact, in our ten years of experience, we have observed a direct correlation between a person’s focus level and their career advancement. Of the thousands of leaders with whom we’ve worked, the vast majority possess an above average ability to focus. This is not to say that exceptional focus is a sure way to the top. But certainly, without focus, career success will be much more difficult to attain. For aspiring leaders, focus should be a daily mantra.

Much has been written about how you can better maintain your focus, and mindfulness practice is obviously the foundation of enhancing focus. But in our research, we looked at some new areas that enable you to manage your focus. Here’s how to do it.

Understand Your Daily Focus Pattern

We looked at how well leaders are able to focus during the day, and found a very clear pattern.

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How to Train Your Brain to Think in New Ways

You can train your brain to think better. One of the best ways to do this is to expand the set of mental models you use to think. Let me explain what I mean by sharing a story about a world-class thinker.

I first discovered what a mental model was and how useful the right one could be while I was reading a story about Richard Feynman, the famous physicist. Feynman received his undergraduate degree from MIT and his Ph.D. from Princeton. During that time, he developed a reputation for waltzing into the math department and solving problems that the brilliant Ph.D. students couldn’t solve.

how to train your brain

When people asked how he did it, Feynman claimed that his secret weapon was not his intelligence, but rather a strategy he learned in high school. According to Feynman, his high school physics teacher asked him to stay after class one day and gave him a challenge.

“Feynman,” the teacher said, “you talk too much and you make too much noise. I know why. You’re bored. So I’m going to give you a book. You go up there in the back, in the corner, and study this book, and when you know everything that’s in this book, you can talk again.”

So each day, Feynman would hide in the back of the classroom and study the book—Advanced Calculus by Woods—while the rest of the class continued with their regular lessons. And it was while studying this old calculus textbook that Feynman began to develop his own set of mental models.

“That book showed how to differentiate parameters under the integral sign,” Feynman wrote. “It turns out that’s not taught very much in the universities; they don’t emphasize it. But I caught on how to use that method, and I used that one damn tool again and again. So because I was self-taught using that book, I had peculiar methods of doing integrals.”

“The result was, when the guys at MIT or Princeton had trouble doing a certain integral, it was because they couldn’t do it with the standard methods they had learned in school. If it was a contour integration, they would have found it; if it was a simple series expansion, they would have found it. Then I come along and try differentiating under the integral sign, and often it worked. So I got a great reputation for doing integrals, only because my box of tools was different from everybody else’s, and they had tried all their tools on it before giving the problem to me.”

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