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Outside the Box: How to Focus to Increase Productivity and Growth

Are you focused?

I have been wracking my brain lately to think about every possible way to grow my business—and you’re likely doing the same. Of course, the challenge has actually been to take the time to just focus and think—to somehow escape the insanity of today’s typical business day to analyze the situation and imagine the possible ways to take advantage of a bad economy and prosper. After pondering how to maximize the effectiveness of our people, improve marketing and ramp up sales activities, it hit me that my effectiveness, my ability to impact our growth is, at best, marginal right now.

If I'm honest with myself, the real reason that my effectiveness is wanting, is that I lack focus, and chances are, so do you. It also hit me that our best weapon, in this tough year as managers and leaders, might be for us to reprogram ourselves to develop an improved ability to focus, which will help maximize the thinking, creativity and actions necessary to grow our businesses in a brutal economic environment.

Streamlining Focus

The importance of true focus became apparent when the CEO of a wealth management company recently shared with me the fact that their top producer only works about eight months a year. When asked how this fellow does it, my pal said "One word: focus…no wait, make that two words: maniacal focus." Twelve months worth of work in eight; five days of work in three?! That got me thinking not just about focus, but also about the possible reasons for managers' lack of focus.

The problem is that there are so many distractions, non-productive activities and interruptions during each of our days, that developing any kind of true focus is difficult. Another huge roadblock is that the very technology that is supposed to make us more productive and effective thinkers—e-mail, Outlook, BlackBerry and instant messaging to name a few—most likely do just the opposite, making us distracted multi-tasking dervishes.

The first step to gaining better focus is to recognize where the distractions are coming from. Technology is culprit number one, as highlighted in a January Newsweek article about how "Technology has affected the way people think, interact and make decisions." The article cites studies that determined that the kind of interruptions that e-mail, instant messaging and BlackBerry inject can impair cognitive thinking, damage train-of-thought and impede creativity. One study, for example, demonstrated that it can take up to 15 minutes to resume a challenging task after a tech interruption. It is probably just human nature to want to check and respond to e-mails and BlackBerry alerts quickly, giving us the feeling that we're doing something, but in reality this behavior means we’re doing nothing.

Culprit number two is the general work environment. In a collegial team-oriented business world, it is natural to be interrupted frequently and pulled off task.- Maybe we even encourage such interruptions by our willingness to stop working to chat, answer questions, or leave our work area to help others out.

Enemy number three is ourselves. Many of us have become addicted to the frenetic short-burst activity-filled lives we lead (at home and at work), and we glory in our ability to multi-task. Yet, how many times have you talked on the phone with someone who is tapping on computer keys and distractedly trying to carry on a conversation, probably while reading a report at the same time? =That behavior really ticks me off; until I remember that I do it all the time—to customers, to vendors, and even to my wife and kids who, of all people, deserve the honor of my attention. Chances are good, that we have been behaving in this fashion for so long, our brains have adapted and are now wired to thrive in this mode. We have become activity junkies.

Taken together, these issues (and others) are likely dramatically diminishing our ability to perform at peak cognitive levels as managers and leaders. And we're kidding ourselves if we think they're not. So the next step after identifying the root cause of distractions is to determine how to adjust our lives to start to develop real focus; to change our behaviors and in turn, rewire our brains to adjust to new habits:

• First, let's commit to real change in our lives when it comes to focus. That means working on an hourly, daily, and weekly basis to monitor and self-control our actions to begin to develop more effective and focused habits.

• Second, let's go back to Steven Covey's basic building block of life management, Habit 3: "Put First Things First." Let's do a better job of prioritizing and focusing our time and energies on the most important things that must get done hour and each day and backburner the activities, tasks and thoughts that are less important and ultimately not critical to success.

• Third, let's determine to work in longer blocks of time, starting with at least an hour at a time, where there will be NO responding to e-mails, checking the "CrackBerry," answering the phone, or talking with another human being. Then let's expand those blocks of time out further as we get better at it. Sure it'll be like kicking a heroin habit at first; and yes, during the writing of this article, I have had to fight myself hard over detouring to do about 43 other things. Our brains will rebel and want to revert to the usual helter-skelter way of doing things, but we can reprogram our brains by continually focusing for longer periods of time.

• Fourth, as we start mastering the ability to focus for longer periods of time, let's see if we can think faster and get more done in the same amount of time. As we learn to focus better, I'll bet our minds will become more efficient and allow us to perform at higher and more creative levels.

• Fifth, let's manage our work environments to minimize people distractions. That might mean asking assistants and co-workers to grant us solitude during our focus time blocks and politely rescheduling conversations from impromptu visits from colleagues. After awhile, our coworkers might get the message and reprogram themselves vis-à-vis our newfound powers of focus.

If we try anything else at this point, we'll lose focus! So let's start with these five actions and see if we can change our lives. If you have had success becoming more focused, would like to share ideas about the subject or if there are any books that you’ve read that would be helpful to truly driving personal change in this area, I would enjoy hearing from you.

David Chittock is president of Incentra, focused on helping leaders achieve their business goals by "increasing the value of the people vital to success" through integrated incentive and recognition solutions. He manages a diverse business that offers strategy creation, web performance platforms, print and electronic communications, administration, training, program analysis and rewards fulfillment around the globe. www.setyourworldonfire.com.