Most of the time, I’m about as focused as a squirrel-obsessed dog in the woods during nut-gathering season. I’m chasing one idea, but then another pops up and I follow it, until another thought distracts me again and I’m off in yet another direction. But every once in a while, I get into the “zone”. Usually it happens when I’m writing or doing something creative – something that totally absorbs my attention in the moment, something so absorbing that it silences the incessant chatter in my brain. It’s an amazing feeling: I’m relaxed yet totally focused, in the flow, productive yet totally in tune with the experience in that moment.
In an earlier post, I wrote about the importance of finding your North Star – a goal or dream that inspires and motivates you, an area where you want to excel. That’s big-picture focus. But equally important in the quest for excellence is developing the ability to focus in the moment on the task at hand – what we would describe as attention or concentration.
According to experts who study performance and achievement, the ability to put yourself into this state, which Terry Orlick, PhD (In Pursuit of Excellence) refers to as “a positive and fully connected focus”, is crucial to fully developing your talents and performing to your highest potential. Orlick describes this quality as being fully connected with the activity you are involved in at that moment, with what you are trying to do, and with what you are experiencing.
If you want to see this kind of focus in action at a high level, the Winter Olympics are coming up – this year as you watch the events, study the athletes and notice how intense their focus in the moment is. This is a skill they have to hone as sharply as their physical and technical skills. When you’re slaloming down a mountain or doing a triple axel on the ice, there’s no room for thinking about a to-do list. And allowing themselves to be distracted by an email they just read or a conversation they just had, or even thinking about the mechanics of their technique, can mean the difference between being at the top or the bottom of the leaderboard.
OK, it’s probably obvious that athletes at that level need to develop that kind of intense focus if they are committed to excellence in their sport. But what about the rest of us? What if you’re pursuing excellence as a salesperson or a business executive or an accountant? What if you’re working towards excellence in your relationships? What if you just want to improve your golf game or cooking skills? Do non-Olympians really need to develop their ability to concentrate?
In short, yes.
According to Daniel Goleman, author of “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence”, “while the link between attention and excellence remains hidden most of the time, it ripples through almost everything we seek to accomplish.”
When we’re fully focused on what we’re doing, we learn new material or skills more quickly, we’re less likely to make mistakes, and we’re more efficient because our brain doesn’t have to keep switching back and forth between channels. We’re more likely to catch that obscure detail that allows us to stand out from the competition, to clinch the sale or impress a potential employer or avoid a costly expense. When we’re interacting with other people, we listen more closely, picking up on subtle cues and truly hearing what the other person is saying, enhancing and deepening connections.
Our ability to focus our attention impacts the quality of our performance and our experience in every single area of our life. So the next question is, can we improve our ability to concentrate? And if so, how?
Thankfully, concentration is a skill, and like any other skill, it’s within our power to improve. Refining our ability to focus in large part is a matter of eliminating or managing distractions. The strategies that are most effective depend on the type of distraction(s) we’re dealing with, which may be different in different situations or at different times.
Distractions fall into two categories: external (noise, clutter, undone laundry, email, social media, games and other apps, etc…) and internal (fatigue, mental chatter stemming from self-doubts and limiting beliefs, worry and anxiety, etc…). You may recognize one or two of these, or maybe all of them. Personally, I struggle with each and every one of these distractions at one time or another. In my next series of blog posts, we’ll explore each of these types of distractions, along with possible ways to eliminate them. It’s a topic worth spending some time on, since distraction control is another of Orlick’s pillars that support excellence.
The first step is to simply become aware of what is distracting you from being focused at those times and in those areas where you would like to improve your results. Over the next few days, try to notice how focused you are at different times throughout your day, like when you’re working on a project on the job, or spending time with family and friends, or participating in your favorite hobby, or taking action to move toward to your North Star.
- When are you most focused?
- When is your attention at its lowest?
- What’s going on at each of those times?
- What are you thinking about when you are most focused versus least focused?
- What’s keeping you from being fully focused in situations that would benefit from your full attention?
After doing this exercise for a few days, take a look at what you discovered. Is there a pattern? Does one type of distraction stand out? Or like me, are you distracted by all or many of them at different times?
As we dive into figuring out how to reduce our distractions, remember the basic principles of habit change (because distractions are really nothing more than habitual behaviors). Start small. Don’t try to eliminate every distraction in your life at once. Pick one to target – maybe the one that is causing you the most problems and keeping you from making more progress toward your North Star dream, or maybe the one that seems like it will be the easiest to eliminate, to build your success muscle. Use the principles of kaizen and microresolutions to start whittling away at that distraction, and it won’t take long for you to begin reaping the benefits of your increased focus!