The Value of Focus
By Sustainable Strategy Implementation NPC
Although we start our strategy planning masterclasses with the notion of ‘focus’ or concentration, this topic is still largely under-emphasised and ultimately deserves much more ‘focus’ itself. In fact, there are several researchers who have shown that the ability to focus, or pay full attention, may be the very driver of excellence and success.
“It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.” – Aristotle Onassis
In our modern digital working world where countless distractions are available at the touch of a button and where competition for our attention is higher than it has ever been, researchers have realised that the ability to focus for longer than 280 characters is a crucial skill that determines one’s optimal performance. This is something we all know. The more we are distracted and let our attention wander, the less effective we are with the task at hand. It is the extent to which distraction affects performance that is rather surprising though. This relationship, the effect of stress on performance, has been studied for decades in psychology and is known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law.
Either Side of the Performance Curve
In terms of the aforementioned law; both too little stress and too much stress have a negative effect on performance. On the one hand you have the disengaged people, bored with their work and disinterested in the outcome. In some companies, uninspired employees have been estimated to constitute a third of the workforce. On the other hand, the more stressed one feels, the more impaired is the brain’s cognitive efficiency. Basically, the invading and distracting thoughts hijack the brains’ attention span and squeeze the cognitive resources. High anxiety shrinks the space available for wholehearted concentration and undermines the capacity to take in new information, let alone generate fresh ideas. To achieve proper focus, we must find a balance along this curve, where stress motivates rather than hinders.
The Zone of Optimal Performance
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (say that 5 times fast) at the University of Chicago described the zone of optimal performance as ‘flow’. Flow represents a time of complete self-regulation, when emotions are harnessed perfectly in the service of performance and with an energized pursuit of the task at hand. Deepak Chopra speaks of three steps required in achieving focus; awareness, desire and intention, all brought together to pay attention. Daniel Goleman, a leader in the study of emotional intelligence, tells the story of a brain surgeon that was so concentrated on his work that he failed to notice that the roof of the surgery had collapsed. In truth it hardly requires mention that employees able to focus fully on the task at hand are more productive, give better attention to customers, and are more loyal to the organization. So, what if we do mention it? If we all deliberately focus on achieving focus the possibilities are endless.
Training the Mind
Fundamentally the need for improved focus is not new. Meditation and mindfulness have been very popular for ages, and their efficacy in training the attention muscle of the mind clearly improves concentration and attention span. These ways of building concentration have become even more popular though, as cognitive neuroscientists document the accomplishments of Emotional Intelligence training methods and the keener attentional focus they deliver. The results are organisations that dramatically feel the improved performance of engaged employees.
Any organization will perform at its optimum when the employees are contributing their best skills at full force. Maximising the moments of flow and enhancing the zone of engagement and motivation requires some practice and training but is most definitely worth the effort.