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Managing three levels of focus

Posted by Aubrey Warren on 19 June 2017

This article is brought to you, as Sesame Street says, by the letter M. In fact, by three sets of the letter M. And by the idea of focus.


At the start of the year I wrote about focus, including one of my favourite quotes: "Your focus determines your reality". Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, has called focus a "super power" for working in the 21st Century economy where we daily face the challenge of information overload and constant distraction. Compounding this is what Daniel Kahnemann calls "the focusing illusion", meaning that it's easy to become distracted or disproportionately influenced by what happens to occupy our attention at any moment.
Managing our focus is essential for success individually, as teams, and as organisations. But it's not easy. And it's not simple or one-dimensional. For practical purposes, let's consider three essential aspects or layers of focus that can be applied across organisational activities.


Micro-focus is about applying undistracted attention to what's most important in the moment. It might be a project, a person or a problem. We can't multi-task cognitive activities; we can only attend competently to one thing at a time. The ability to be completely present and attentive to what needs our focus in the moment is micro-focus. Micro-focus requires uninterrupted space and time in which we can apply exclusive attention to one thing.


Macro-focus is the wider perspective or context to which our in-the-moment attention is devoted. It's about ensuring our micro-focus is being applied to intentional forward movement. If our micro-focus is on a project, then the macro-focus might be what the project is designed to achieve; if our micro-focus is a person, then the macro-focus might be what we are trying to help the person with; if our micro-focus is on a problem, then the macro-focus might be on the solution or we are trying change or improve. Macro-focus is like a dashboard: it provides regular insight into overview and monitors what we're achieving and where our efforts are taking us.


Meta-focus is the meaning that underpins, guides and frames our macro- and micro-focus. It's our focus on why we are doing what we are doing. Without meaning and purpose our focus can easily be applied to unimportant activities that lack real value and fail to motivate us. Meta-focus requires reflection and reminders about how what we are doing matters individually and collectively. It's part of what Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer call "the progress principle":
"Through exhaustive analysis of diaries kept by knowledge workers, we discovered the progress principle: Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run."


Making the time to apply intentional focus at all three of these levels - micro, macro and meta - can also support the principle of "triple-loop learning".


Managing focus is an individual responsibility. It's also important for groups to be able to understand and discuss their work in all three ways. And that means it's important that organisations communicate the value and meaning that guides and underpins individual and collective effort. (This is the key idea in Simon Sinek's Start with Why.)
"Our focus determines our reality" - whether we think about it in terms of leadership or strategy, performance or productivity, teams or sales.


Which aspect of focus needs more attention from you, your team or your organisation? In what areas? What would be the benefits?

Aubrey Warren
Situational Leadership® Master Trainer and Australia and New Zealand Affiliate for the Center for Leadership Studies
References:
Amabile, T. & Kramer, S.J. (2011). The power of small wins. Harvard Business Review (May).
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.
Sinek, S. (2016). Start with Why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action.

© Copyright Aubrey Warren 2017

Author: Aubrey Warren Connect via: LinkedIn
Tags: Focus attention productivity value

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