Apart from job search and improving time management skills probably the one area most of my clients struggle with is maintaining focus. The ability to prioritize from among competing tasks, coupled with the necessary resolve to buckle down and concentrate on the issues at hand, are part and parcel of an overriding inability to maintain focus and achieve results.
Was it always like this, or have things just gotten worse in the past few years? What impact did the pandemic have on people’s ability to focus? How is it possible to focus on key deliverables when there always seem to be so many things to accomplish?
These are just some of the issues clients struggle with, and where some perspective may be helpful.
Living in a Murky State
Simply put, focus is the ability to concentrate attention or effort in the pursuit of an objective. On the surface that would seem like a fairly simple thing to accomplish, but unfortunately, we don’t live in simple times. All of us struggle daily with balancing what seems like an increasing and sometimes, conflicting set of needs and projects. Look around you and everyone seems to be rushing. If you ask someone how they are invariably they will respond “busy”.
What has made our lives so much more complex than 10, 15 or 20 years ago? Here are some thoughts:
- Family Pressures: One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed is the difference in leisure and play habits of children now compared to fifty years ago. I grew up in a small town. Many of the amenities, activities and undertakings available today were not even heard of when I was a child. Children, and adults, have so many more demands on their time and space. Rarely today can you find a kid who isn’t enrolled in three or four sports, craft or recreational activities, in addition to school. All of these pressures place inordinate demands both on children and their parents. Not only do the kids have to excel at various undertakings, but their parents have the challenge of being both chauffeur and cheerleader.
- Technology: I have a smartphone, but apart from the calendar feature and occasional texting I seldom use it. I’m on Linked In, but I shun social media and detest it with a passion. I would venture to guess that I spend maybe half an hour total daily on my phone and on Linked In. These two things alone put me in stark contrast with many others who are constantly on their devices and active participants in Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok, et. al. Technology runs many people’s lives, and that is hard to refute. Little wonder a recent study indicated the average person spends between eight and thirteen hours a day on electronic devices or social media.
- Accelerated Pace of Work: Compared to previous generations employees today commute longer, work harder, and put in elongated days that often stretch way past the normal 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. schedule. Since the pandemic work-life balance has gone by the wayside. Employer expectations are a big part of this problem as supervisors expect their team to be available immediately to respond to queries or handle emergencies.
- The Demand for Instant Turnaround: Related to technology is the demand for instant turnaround. Everyone needs everything “yesterday”. Rarely is something delivered on time. All of us seem to scramble at the last minute.
- Competing Priorities: We no longer live in a heterogenous society. Call it pluralism or diversity or multiculturalism, but the fact remains that different people with different needs and different interpretations often makes it hard to find a common ground. People are hard to satisfy, and we don’t all think the same way. What I want isn’t necessarily what others want.
- Financial Pressures: We live in a consumer age. Never before have we been presented with some many products to consume, places to go, things to do, and people to meet. All of these take money, and there are many more competing demands on people’s disposable income. That pressure to spend, or save, can create a whole different set of challenges and demands on everyone.
Re-set to Focus
Addressing the issue of focus first requires someone to take stock of how their time is spent in a given time period. One common technique I ask clients to perform is to keep a detailed log for one week of how they spend their time. I call it a “time audit”.
Invariably when I ask clients to do this certain patterns arise. Most are astounded by how much of their day is eaten up with phone calls and meetings. Both of these are time sucks, but more importantly, they are interruptions and distractions. Those who require significant time to concentrate on major priorities need to get a grip on where and how their time and energies are dissipated.
Not everyone has the luxury of being able to forego attending meetings. However, I would submit that unless one is required to present or has a major input into the discussion that delegating meetings to others is an option worth considering. Not only can it serve as a form of professional development for your team members, but it also serves to demonstrate trust.
Second, consider using schedule blockers. A number of my clients have learned to block out portions of their day (i.e. usually 1 or 2 hours) on their calendars to attend to important priorities. Instituting this on an ongoing basis will ensure that you have time during the day to attend to high priority issues.
Third, organize your day before it starts. I don’t just mean keeping a “To Do” list, but actually, going one step further and prioritizing deliverables on the basis of “Critical”, “Important” and “Useful but not Urgent”. Keeping your deliverables in mind throughout the day will be helpful in ensuring focus and maintaining a line of sight on critical items.
Fourth, resist the temptation to answer every e-mail or phone call immediately. I realize this is tempting and difficult. However, unless it is from the President or the CEO chances are the world won’t come to a grinding halt if you don’t respond immediately to every interruption. Instead, set a defined time or times during the day in your schedule to return e-mails and phone calls. Ditto social media and text messages.
Fifth, forget multi-tasking. Multi-tasking was once considered a skill, but the fact remains that as human beings our brains are not wired to juggle multiple activities simultaneously. We can only concentrate on a limited number of things. When our focus is dissipated quality disappears, and we are only partially connecting.
Instead, what works better is compartmentalizing. Grouping similar activities together, and doing them in sequence rather than simultaneously, is beneficial. For instance, if you have to return phone calls then do them in a half hour block. Similarly, if you need to respond to e-mails do them in a one-hour block. Don’t mix activities because mixing creates disruption and disorder, and that saps focus.
Finally, understand what work really creates value. Not everything we do in connection with our job yields similar results. Some work is more important than others. Understanding what is key to both your success and your organization’s helps in maintaining focus.
A Final Thought…
The pace of work is increasing, and despite exhortations from business leaders and social media influencers extolling the merits of “work life balance” it isn’t likely to diminish anytime soon. Moreover, elongating your day and working increasing hours will only exacerbate stress. Past a certain point longer days become a diminishing return, and there is a point at which your productivity diminishes.
Maintaining focus starts with getting a grip on your schedule, and then taking ownership of how your work gets completed and how you manage your time. If you view time and work efforts as units of production over which you have control then it implies that you have direction over what gets done and when. That builds focus.