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Avoiding Focus Highjackers: A 3-Part Strategy for Success!

Posted by Dr. Kathy Laster on 01/31/2017

If you’re like me, you want to work smarter, maximize your productivity, and experience greater success and personal fulfillment this year. As we fill our calendars and diligently measure KPIs, it’s also important to evaluate how we’re using one of our greatest tools and assets of all—our attention, our focus.
In “Where is My Attention Going? The Strategic Focus Conversation,” (Theurer & Jelks, co-authors of Missing Conversations: 9 Questions All Leaders Should Ask Themselves) claims, “Your attention is an incredibly powerful instrument—and you can choose both where to direct it and the quality of focus you bring to what you encounter in your daily life.”
Viewing my attention as an instrument—and as a limited, precious commodity— has helped to clarify my priorities, determine the quality of my focus, and target where and what I could improve to turbocharge my work-life. Inspired by Theurer & Jelks, I want to share a three-part strategy, along with tips and insights, to help you take mental inventory, optimize your attention, and achieve, through focus, your most important business and personal goals in 2017.

Part I: What Do I Focus On? Clarify Priorities
One of the biggest obstacles to finding focus in our work and lives is having limited attention yet a seemingly-limitless number of tasks competing for it. Therefore, we need to clarify our most important priorities and cultivate “the discipline and resolve to stay focused on them.”
If you can’t focus on everything, be strategically focused. “Being strategically focused means bringing your best thinking and your full attention to the projects, priorities, and initiatives that matter most.”
Not all of your goals, and activities to achieve them, are equally important. Of course, defining what matters most will depend on your specific values, strengths, objectives, and circumstances, as well as your timeline and available resources.
To clarify your priorities:

Assess Determine your high-level goals and the lower-level goals to achieve them. How do your day-to-day activities reflect each? Where is most of your attention going? Consider measuring work tasks in terms of importance and urgency:



              Not Urgent


               1 MANAGE

      Crises & Pressing Problems

  • Demand + Necessity
  • Daily Fire-fighting
  • Be Quick to Delegate

               2 FOCUS

         On Strategies & Values

  • Opportunity + Planning
  • Critical Thinking
  • Consider the Macro

Not important

                3 AVOID

      Interruptions & Busy Work

  • Illusion + Deception
  • Not your emergency
  • Minimize Investment

                4 LIMIT

        Trivial & Wasteful

  • Escape + Waste
  • Entertainment Only
  • Use to Minimize Stress


  1. Important and urgent= daily fire-fighting (crises and pressing problems)
  2. Important not urgent= opportunity, planning, critical thinking (strategies)
  3. Urgent not important= non-emergencies, busy work (interruptions)
  4. Not important or urgent= entertainment, escape (trivial)
We must manage, avoid, and limit categories #1, 3, and 4, respectively. But #2, “important not urgent” allows us to focus. When we prioritize activities in this area, we achieve high-level, macro goals.
Articulate your priorities and how they serve your goals. Write them down and refer to them often. Being concrete increases our accountability and determination to stay focused.
Align It’s vital for productivity and happiness that our priorities align with those of our closest team members—colleagues, co-workers, and family members. You’re likely to face fewer obstacles, and gain support, if your priorities coincide with those of your inner circle. Compare notes often so that you stay on the same page.
Part II: How am I Focusing? Determine Attention Quality
Theurer & Jelks states, “How you pay attention has profound implications for your leadership and life.” If you’ve ever felt spread too thin, always bouncing between activities, you might agree that multitasking can carry negative implications for you and your team.
The temptation to multitask has never been higher. But, as the saying goes, “If you chase two rabbits, both will escape.” Trying to increase work quantity by multitasking might make us feel more productive in the moment, but all too often it compromises work quality and leads to errors and mishaps, especially for cognitively-demanding activities.
This produces the illusion of productivity, when in reality, it’s possible that we spend just as long with the work, or even longer, in the multitasking process and aftermath—reorienting ourselves after interruptions and sporadic shifting between screens, fixing our mistakes, and explaining our thought processes to others.
When multitasking is our default work mode, we’re using continuous partial attention: “a mode of attention where you’re on constant alert, always plugged in to your networks of connectivity and constantly scanning them for opportunities.” Though multitasking might work in small doses for simpler tasks, as a primary work habit, continuous partial attention dilutes our mental reserves and perhaps even diminishes our capacity to sustain the concentrated focus that we need to do our best work.
To determine the quality of your focus:
Identify (and quantify) your biggest distractions, “attention hijackers,” and attention-diluting habits. Could the following affect your performance, alertness, and energy at work?

  • Multitasking regularly with two or more cognitive tasks (e.g. listening to a conference call while responding to emails), each of which requires your full attention to do well
  • Constantly checking your phone during the day, even while in meetings or when walking through the office
  • Working long hours without taking any breaks to clear your mind
  • Allowing drop-ins and requests from employees and colleagues to repeatedly divert your attention from the projects or priorities you most want to advance
Keep a log or tally of the breaks and pauses in a typical work-day. Which diversions interrupt your focus the most, and for how long?
What else interferes? Maybe it’s not distraction so much as small-but-still-necessary tasks that eat away at your available attention, crowding out your most important work. Evaluate whether hiring a freelancer could help you focus on your priorities. (If so, try www.upwork.com www.freelancer.com, etc.)
Check your Attention Attitude. Just because mobile phones and the immediate-access mindset associated with it are now commonplace does not mean that you have to be instantly, automatically available all the time. Do you respect your own attention like you would others’ attention? If not, would it be beneficial to start? Theurer & Jelks state, “Not only are we more productive when we focus for periods of uninterrupted time; we are also happier.” And more successful!
Part III: Where Can I Improve? Target and Turbocharge
You’ve clarified your priorities and determined how you’re focusing. Now, targeting your areas for improvement takes your attention to the next level.
If multitasking leaves you in “artificial constant crisis” and less satisfied with what you do, it’s important to regain control of your full attention. You can go from “reactive manager” to “strategic leader” with action.
Start and end your day proactively. Choose one or two activities that make you feel productive and in charge of your work (versus the other way around). Instead of checking email, social media, or TV as the first part of your morning routine and the last thing before lights out, try substituting with mindful meditation, exercise, reading a book, etc. This reverses the rhythm from reaction to action, and that empowerment carries over into the workplace.
Worst things first. While it’s easy to procrastinate the things you least enjoy doing, you’ll be more productive if you get the “worst” part done first thing in the morning. You’ll have the accomplishment of that—and your excitement for the fun things—to propel you forward. (Cue Nike slogan!)
Mornings are often the best time for “creating” while afternoons are ideal for “consuming.” Our decision-making energy wanes as the day progresses—a phenomenon called “decision fatigue.” Consider structuring your daily activities around these natural cycles.
(For extra tips on timing at work, see: https://www.fastcompany.com/3047586/know-it-all/the-best-time-of-day-to-do-everything-at-work)
Once you’ve set out to accomplish something specific, curate your environment to be distraction-free:
  • Close unnecessary tabs.
  • Try setting your phone to ‘priority notifications only’ during your best, most-productive times of the day.
  • Keep a notebook for spontaneous ideas that you can’t get to now but would like to revisit later. Then keep moving.
  • Do a clean sweep. If you regularly lose time because you’re scrambling to find files, come in early or stay late one day to clear/ organize your workspace. Make it a habit to spend a few minutes tidying up each day.
Change it up. Theurer & Jelks identifies two different modes of thinking: “deep-dive thinking” and “subconscious creative thinking.” Deliberately carving out space for deep-dive thinking can revitalize your passion for your work. Try switching venues (i.e. work from a library or coffee shop 1-2 days per month) to see how changing your environment affects your attention and thought-life. Boost subconscious creative thinking by intentionally incorporating it into your current activities to make them more potent (e.g. choose specific topics to mull over on the drive to work, etc.).
Make planning fun. We have our calendars and to-do lists, but do we often strategize the smartest approach for accomplishing the week’s activities? Planning your planning goes a long way, and it can even be fun! Every Sunday evening, for example, treat yourself to a hot drink and spend an hour reviewing your schedule and setting strategic goals and measurable outcomes for the upcoming week.
Theurer & Jelks closes best: “As leaders, we are frequently caught up in the doing of our work and sometimes forget how important it is to our success and satisfaction to think about, reflect on, and process our work. This vital time spent thinking is what allows us to infuse what we do with greater creativity, clarity, and care.” We hope this strategy helps you improve your attention, sharpen your focus, and create a greater Impact in 2017!

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