Focus: the hidden driver of excellence
Why did you write Focus?
The reason I wrote Emotional Intelligence was, in part, because there had been an explosion of findings around emotions and the brain. Now there’s been a similar explosion of findings on attention, so I’ve done the same thing, looking at the implications of that research – and there are vast implications for workplaces, and particularly for leaders.
Have we lost focus?
Today, we’re all besieged. Attention is under assault in a way it’s never been before. Digital services are extremely clever at distracting us from what we should be doing, whether it’s working or connecting with other people. It’s routine now at many workplaces for people to be in a meeting doing something else on their laptop or texting under the table. That means they’re simply not at the meeting.
What are the biggest myths about attention?
I don’t know about myths, but there are certainly erroneous assumptions.
Firstly, the idea that only a single kind of attention is of value: selective attention, or focusing on a task at hand and ignoring everything else. Usually it’s important when we’re trying to get something done, but that’s not the mode of attention that is most useful for creativity.
For that, you need to let your mind wander, you need to let go of a single focus and roam freely because it’s only in that state of attention you can put together novel elements that have never been combined before in a way which has some useful application – the definition of a creative insight.
The other is what I call the myth of 10,000 hours. People bandy about the figure of 10,000 hours’ practice being necessary to be at the top of your form in any domain or skill. That’s only half-true. What’s left out of that equation is that you also need the eye of an expert coach.
If you have a bad golf stroke and you practice that stroke for 10,000 hours, you’ll still have a bad golf stroke. If, on the other hand, you have a coach who says ‘stand this way, try to connect with the ball that way’ and so on, you’ll be improving.
What’s your advice to the attention-challenged?
Essentially, you need to realise that attention is a muscle: if you exercise it, you get better and better at it. In a gym, the more often you lift a weight, the stronger than muscle becomes. It’s the same with attention: the more often you bring your mind back from distraction and wandering, every time you bring it back to the point of focus, you’re literally strengthening the connectivity in the brain’s network for focusing.
There’s a chapter in the book on emotional intelligence. How is that relevant?
In Focus, I’ve rethought Emotional Intelligence in terms of attention. So for example, self-awareness is what helps us attune to these subtle, visceral signals that our body gives us that tell us what our life wisdom on a decision is. The part of the brain that stores our life experience has lots of connectivity to the gastro-intestinal tract: it’s literally your gut feeling. Being able to tune into that gives you additional data in making a decision – you’re accessing everything you know about it that you’ve learned at this point.
What’s the single biggest threat to concentration today?
Without a doubt, digital distractions. They’re very destructive, they work on a part of the brain which is unconscious – we don’t even notice the moment our mind wanders until we realise, my god, I just spent half an our cruising the web.
Now you’ve written the book, are you less easily distracted?
I’ve noticed more when it happens – which is an advantage.