“Always remember: Your Focus determines your reality.” Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn shares this advice with Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars, but in our hyper-distracted work world, it’s advice that we all need to hear.
Technology has undoubtedly ushered in progress in a myriad of ways. But this same force has also led to work environments that inundate people with a relentless stream of emails, meetings, and distractions. In 2010, Eric Schmidt, then the CEO of Google, shared a concern with the world: “Every two days, we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization until 2003. I spend most of my time assuming the world is not ready for the technology revolution that will be happening soon.” Are we able to process the volume of information, stimuli, and various distractions coming at us each and every day?
A significant volume of research has outlined the problem with this onslaught of information. Research by the University of London reveals that our IQ drops by five to 15 points when we are multitasking. In his book, Your Brain at Work, David Rock explains that performance can decrease by up to 50% when a person focuses on two mental tasks at once. And research led by legendary Stanford University professor Clifford Nass concluded that distractions reduce the brain’s ability to filter out irrelevancy in its working memory.
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There is no silver bullet to solving the complex problems ushered in by the information age. But there are some good places to start, and one of them is counterintuitive: Solitude. Having the discipline to step back from the noise of the world is essential to staying focused. This is even more important in a highly politicized society that constantly incites our emotions, causing the cognitive effects of distractions to linger. In our book, Lead Yourself First, Ray Kethledge and I define solitude as a state of mind, a space in which to focus one’s own thoughts without distraction — and where the mind can work through a problem on its own.
The ability to focus is a competitive advantage in the world today. Here are some thoughts on how to stay focused at work:
Build periods of solitude into your schedule. Treat it as you would any meeting or an appointment. If you don’t schedule and commit to solitude, something else will fill the space. One need not be Henry David Thoreau here; 15-minute pockets of solitude are very effective. If we spend our entire workday sitting in meetings and answering emails, it leaves little space in our minds to do the hard thinking that is essential to good decision making and leadership.
Analyze where your time is best spent. Most of us have meetings that we can afford to miss, and most of us underutilize our energy because we have not allocated time to reflect and be rigorous about our priorities.
Starve your distractions. Social media, YouTube, and the limitless possibilities of the internet hang over our heads. They tempt us to click links that take us to another five-minute video or article. Acknowledge the ways that the internet lures you in, and then intervene by logging out of your social media accounts and blocking certain websites during work hours — especially the ones you use for a quick distraction “when you have 10 minutes to kill.”
Don’t be too busy to learn how to be less busy. One of the biggest reasons we struggle to focus is because we fill our schedules with too many commitments and we consistently prioritize urgent tasks over important ones. Leadership development and training opportunities exist to enhance your ability to understand yourself better, to reflect, and to grow. Don’t let the tempo of work get in the way of good development opportunities (once in a while).
Create a “stop doing” list. There are only so many hours in a day. As your to-do list grows, you cannot keep accumulating more tasks. Solitude gives you the space to reflect on where your time is best spent, which provides you with the clarity to decide which meetings you should stop attending, which committees you should step down from, and which invitations you should politely decline. This is something that Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, has been advising people to do for many years.
The volume of our communication, and our unfettered access to information and other people, have made it more difficult than ever to focus. Despite this reality, there is another truth: Opportunities to focus are still all around us. But we must recognize them and believe that the benefit of focus, for yourself and the people you lead, is worth making it a priority in your life. In other words, before you can lead others, the first person you must lead is yourself.