How important is focus for a leader?

Source: Management Team (20/06/2017); Author: Karlien Vanderheyden

You set off for work in the morning knowing that you have three important things to do that day. But then it is five o’clock already, and you realise to your astonishment that you haven’t dealt with a single task. Questions from colleagues and staff, and their priorities, have determined your working day. Does that sound familiar? It’s not just you.

The emergence of social media and new technologies has enabled us to communicate in all sorts of different ways with everyone, continuously and ‘in real time’. Where we previously needed different tools for communication, we often do everything now with a single device. We call that ‘digital convergence’. For example, if you decide to listen to a podcast on the train in the morning, you need serious willpower not to have a quick look at your e-mails first.

All of this is a direct assault on the control we have of our attention. Fear of missing something has most of us jumping from one thought to another, from one task to another, and one device to another. The result is divided attention.

In fact, we are engaged in non-stop multitasking. As well as needing more time to finish a task, the quality of our achievements is lower. Nothing we do has our full attention, and constant switching undermines our focus. It is just like any other skill: practice makes perfect. So the less we practice focusing our attention over a longer period, the more our ability to focus deteriorates.

It is high time for a different approach. One in which the ‘information age’ makes way for the ‘attention age’. Successful leaders understand that attention is now becoming the most valuable commodity, and focus the leading skill. But how do you go about it in practice: regaining control of your own attention and helping your staff to focus?

By being proactive instead of reactive. Reacting means relinquishing control. At that point we are no longer making choices based on all our options - including the things that are important to ourselves - but merely selecting one of the priorities offered to us by other people.

‘Attention management’ in practice: more focus = more control = more happiness

Attention management is a real leadership challenge. How can you make attention management a priority in your organisation? By setting a good example yourself. Providing a clear role model is the best way to encourage your staff to change their behaviour. These tips will get you off to a good start:

1. Dare to go offline several times a day.
If you are cut off from all sources of interference, you can work more efficiently and also be far more creative.

2. Set rules for the use of e-mail within your team, or even the whole organisation.
For example, employees do not have to respond to an e-mail within the hour, they are not expected to answer e-mails after 6pm, and so on.

3. Ban as many technological distractions as possible from meetings.
More focus ensures that meetings are more efficient, shorter and more creative.

4. Give clear, simple messages.
Put more emphasis on a couple of well-defined issues that you return to regularly, rather than immediately putting all your ideas into e-mails, which only creates confusion and encourages your team members to multi-task.

5. Be clear about your priorities.
This helps your staff to focus on what is really important. They learn to make choices and also to say no to tasks that do not offer any extra value.

6. Reorganise work and stop switching between tasks.
People who want to focus on their work are more successful when they divide their day into large blocks rather than doing various tasks simultaneously. So try to ensure that your employees have several larger projects that they can work on for longer periods of time. Also provide times (e.g. silent Thursday mornings) when they can work without disruptions.

7. Take enough breaks.
Breaks help your brain process and store information. This enables you to recharge your batteries before you start the next task.

8. Keep an eye on stress levels.
Brief periods of stress can stimulate your intellectual productivity (e.g. working hard to meet a deadline), but too much stress or stress that goes on for too long is harmful and has a negative effect. Consider the following questions: are your expectations actually realistic? Do your employees have sufficient resources, and are these the right resources? Do they have time to catch their breath?

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