JM

12 Oct 2017

96. MAINTAINING FOCUS

A recent study showed that executives are distracted every 11 minutes at work and take eight minutes to recover. Never before has a generation found it so hard to focus.

Words: Jeremy Snape, Sporting Edge

Today's managers face a barrage of information on a daily basis. With endless phone calls and emails, a meeting with the chairman, family mayhem, tomorrow's meetings and next week’s event to deal with, life can be a blur.

Many managers, desperate to be a success, even go in search of additional information - more clues, advice and opinions - in an effort to constantly develop and improve. However, it is technology that has played the most powerful, albeit subtle, role here and in being blinded by all the flashing lights and gizmos we have missed a trick. The old world in which we went in search of the things we needed has imploded. Now, we are constantly bombarded by enticing messages; they come and find us.

Sophisticated algorithms track our every move and seduce us with unsolicited information that is tailored to what we 'might like'. Our digital fingerprint tells the algorithms what we are interested in, which drives a variety of fascinating distractions straight to our handsets.

Mobile technology consultant Tomi Ahonen recently reviewed a study that found people interacted with their phones an incredible 150 times per day, with 50 of those interactions being to send or receive messages or calls. Accept it - we're addicted.

MULTI-TASK, MULTI-FAIL

It's likely, however, that this addiction will pass. The next generation will probably laugh at our indecision, our ease of distraction and how we have become conditioned to the Pavlovian ping of our phones. The next frontier will not be in the production of more information, but in its curation. Future generations will have digital tools and daily habits to ensure their main thing remains the main thing. They will be blissfully insulated from the rest.

These changes can't come too soon. While we see the ability to multi-task as a must-have skill and a badge of honour for modern living, we are, says molecular biologist John Medina, biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously.

What, then, can our modern manager do in the face of such information overload? When we get into a mental tailspin it’s a good idea to stop for a minute and ask ourselves the very simplest of questions: What does success mean for me in the medium term? Where do I have the biggest impact? How can I insulate this impact from distractions? Given a blank sheet of paper, how would I build days of supreme impact with my team? How do I politely decline anything that threatens my focus without seeming rude?

To return to the science, our brains consume one fifth of our body’s energy, so it's vital we start to think about the importance of our mental energy just as we do our physical energy. Two hours less sleep doesn’t mean you can fit more into your day, it means your day is less effective.

If your desk looks like a recycling bin, your subconscious brain picks up the cognitive load of each task and then drops it. Based on your preferences, skills and deadlines, you choose which jobs to tackle first. The more difficult tasks often get pushed back in the queue as we go in search of quick wins and instant gratification. From a psychological point of view, this is like trying to lift the heaviest dumbbells in the gym when we are at our most fatigued.

Herein lies the challenge of our generation. Our desire and need to survive in the short term prevents us from creating new energy and focusing on efficient strategies. We have to hope that the change comes before we reach our breaking point.

BRAVE NEW WORLD

Fast-forward to the year 2022 and the current honeymoon of choice, information overload and data is well and truly over. It will be a time when simplicity, meaning and focus are celebrated much more highly than round-the-clock working. Saying that you are 'working flat out’ will be more of a confession than a boast.

The 2022 manager will have personal focus. They will know exactly what contributes to their personal success and will understand that working to their strengths is the key. They will switch their phone on only when they need it rather than responding to every ring and beep and will focus on what is within their control rather than worrying about what is not. The 2022 manager will craft their day into blocks of similar tasks to avoid the cognitive drain of multitasking and will value their rest as much as their work. And all of this will give them a new freedom that fuels their effectiveness.

The 2022 manager will also focus on their interpersonal impact. They will understand that 10 minutes of being fully present in a conversation is worth 10 hours of shallow listening and distraction. They will have the time to consider their impact with a group and tailor their message to their needs. They will have a trusted team to manage half of their workload, allowing them to be more strategic, and they will help the members of that team grow into leaders. They will know that saying yes to everyone and everything actually means saying no to their most important work – they will be diplomatic, but strong when they declines peripheral requests.

Technology and the distractions that come with it have crept up on us. Now, all of us need to consider how we can manage our precious mental energies better and become the masters of technology before it becomes the master of us.