"Your focus determines your reality" is one of those quotes I find myself coming back to time and again. Whether it's managing attention, seeing things in context, prioritising, or interpreting experiences, focus shapes our attention, our actions and our attitudes.
We are becoming increasingly aware that focus is essential to managing ourselves and our work in a complex world. The human brain receives 11 million bits of information per second from the environment but can only process 40, according to Timothy Wilson, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. While we are (fortunately) unaware of much of this, we're still faced with the constant challenge of choosing what to focus our valuable energy on and what to ignore. Our choices are crucial to our success.
Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world, says that true focus is essential to enabling us to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. He calls it a "super power" in the 21st century economy, but says "most people have lost the ability to go deep, spending their days instead in a frantic blur of email and social media, not even realizing there's a better way".
When Daniel Kahnemann, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist and author of Thinking Fast, And Slow, was asked what one scientific concept, properly understood, would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit, his response was: "Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it".
He was referring to "the focusing illusion": that things that draw attention to themselves lead us to overestimate their importance. You can see our daily dilemma: there are so many things, people, noises, images, and ideas clamouring for our attention that it's too often the nearest, loudest, most obvious (or obnoxious), most recent or most persistent that takes our focus hostage. And there goes our productivity and sense of purpose. We end up chasing the "urgent" over the "important".
Rationally, it doesn't make sense, but what draws our attention naturally seems important in that moment. We instinctively respond to an unexpected sound, a new person or feature in our normal environment - partly out of self protection and situational awareness. But having captured our attention momentarily it's easy for an unimportant incident, idea or other change to assume importance it does not actually have. Because, as Robert Cialdini highlights in his new book Pre-suasion, "All too often, people believe that if they have paid attention to an idea or event or group, it must be important enough to warrant the consideration".
This is a principle employed in media "agenda setting" to establish (or exaggerate) the importance of an issue. It's also used as a political counter-strategy to distract the media and public: flood the media with stories that keep attention away from more sensitive or important issues. "Politicians are almost as good as marketers in causing people to exaggerate the importance of issues on which their attention is focused," says Kahneman.
So what does this "focusing illusion" mean for us as we try to effectively manage our own and others' focus and attention in the face of increasing distraction and information overload? We know that it's vital to be situationally aware - attuned to what's happening and changing around us - but that we must also be selectively attentive if we are to focus productively. Apart from some practical skills like establishing your own focused times and spaces, what are some broad guiding principles that might help us orient ourselves to each day with productive focus?
First, remember Kahneman's advice and recognise that just by focusing on something it will assume importance even if it's not actually important. If you value your focus you'll attend to things selectively and consciously. And if you're in a leadership role - formal or informal - remember that when you place your attention on something it signals to others that it is important and valuable and it will occupy their focus. Even if it isn't that important. The autonomy that power and status gives us comes with a responsibility to manage our focus, because our focus becomes others' reality.
Second, while our focus must adapt and shift to changing circumstances, that refocusing should occur within a frame of reference that is determined by our values, purpose and priorities. If those aren't clear then our scope for distraction will be limitless. If what you're focusing on is aligned with your values, purpose and priorities then you will bring greater energy to it and achieve more.
If you value where you focus your energy and attention then you'll focus your energy and attention on what you value.
This means being able to say "no" with strategic intent. "Focusing means saying no," said the late Steve Jobs. Stephen Covey said that we have to learn to say "no" to what's good in order to say "yes" to what's better. And to do that we have to have a clear focus on what "better" is.
Third, remember that you do have a choice. We can't always choose what captures our attention, but we can choose what we assign importance to and where we invest our focus. Every day, every meeting, every conversation, every alert presents us with the opportunity to choose.
The author, psychiatrist, neurologist, and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl offered this counsel: "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."
I hope 2017 will be a high-value year of focused achievement and success for you.
Aubrey Warren, Influence 3
Achor, S. (2014). Optimize your brain for success: Reducing excess and negative noise.
Wharton @ Work newsletter (June).
Cialdini, R. (2016) Pre-Sausion: A revolutionary way to influence and persuade. Random House.
Covey, S. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The Business Library.
Kahnemann, D. (2011). Thinking Fast, And Slow. Penguin.
Kahnemann, D. (2011). Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it. Edge World Question Center. https://www.edge.org/q2011/q11_17.html#kahnemann
Newport, C. (2016). Deep Work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world. Grand Central Publishing.
Wilson, T. (2002). Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the adaptive unconscious. Harvard University Press.
(The Frankl quote was cited by Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.)
Copyright (C) Aubrey Warren, 2016