When walking, walk, when eating, eat: Zen Buddhists always make mental discipline sound so simple. In the fifth century, guru Bodhidharma is said to have sat staring at the wall of a cave, engaged in zazen, an ancient Buddhist meditation, for several decades. But could he have kept up the same level of concentration in the modern office? If he had to juggle e-mails, a BlackBerry, a pushy boss, demanding clients and loads of people 'poking' him on the social networks, he may have abandoned the lotus position within days to pace around, scoffing rice-balls.
Then again, he may have known better. Whenever Zen practitioners embark on such marathon feats of meditation, they always do so with a clearly defined, long-term goal. This makes sense. If you're going to spend half your life in a cave, you need a very good reason - in their case, the pursuit of enlightenment.
Most of us aren't seeking anything quite so profound in our working lives, but when it comes to staying focused amid the confusing bombardment of everyday tasks, having our mind on a precise motivating target can be just as important. Luckily, like meditation, it works both ways. Manage those niggly jobs well and you'll soon find that long-term focus sharpening too.
Coach David Allen likens effective focus to driving a car. A learner driver is so absorbed in trying to manage a range of separate tasks simultaneously - steering, checking the mirrors, using the pedals and changing gear, while all the time trying not to flatten pedestrians - that they can't relax enough to think about their destination. As a result, the vehicle moves forward in a series of jerky movements. Contrast that with the progress of a more experienced driver. With all the small tasks done automatically, they can fix their eyes on the road ahead and keep the vehicle gliding along a far smoother path.
The same can be said for steering your career. 'The more you are on top of your individual moves,' says Allen, 'the more you're able to keep your focus further out, on where you're going. And the more you can perceive that S-curve in front of you, the smoother you can drive. Working life is the same as driving.'
That S-curve of growth can, of course, be leading you pretty much anywhere. A chief exec may be aiming to monopolise a market or produce a truly sustainable brand; a cocksure individual may be mapping out, by means of scribbles on a napkin, a plan to make their first million. And for an entrepreneur, it may simply be a case of keeping the company growing. All involve maintaining a clear view of the future.
'If you're focused on a long-term goal, you look beyond the difficulties you're faced with,' says Victoria Whitbread, co-founder of design firm W2 Products. 'It's like a tunnel. There's light at the end of it, and all this fuzz around it.'
For entrepreneurs, that light tends to burn bright, and focus is generated naturally by the need to keep the business cogs turning. But for those working in companies employing thousands of people, any sense of purpose easily gets lost in the fuzz. Days can roll into one and complacency set in with the safety of a regular pay cheque. You may soon find yourself in reactive mode, simply dealing with the things being thrown at you, rather than pursuing them with the proactivity of someone who's clear on their goals.
'If you don't know where you're going, you're more likely to let the tasks pile up on your desk,' says Allen, author of Getting Things Done (Piatkus, 2002). 'Why? Because you don't have anything important enough to make your brain say: "I need to stop this distraction."'
In order to maintain focus day-to-day, adds Allen, it's crucial to stay tuned in to 'the hard stuff about life'. This means working out who you are, what your priorities are and - that staple of the job interview - where you plan to be in five years' time.
This is when things really start cooking. If you can identify an end goal that's truly fulfilling, lots of disparate elements slot magically into place. Energy levels go up, and you can become more aware how this far-off end point ties together everything you do - whether that's simply replying to an e-mail, following up a casual suggestion of a book that may be worth reading, or even answering a call in the middle of a critical task. 'Manage your life properly and suddenly interruptions aren't really interruptions,' says Allen.
At this point, don't panic if you fear we're straying into the murky territory frequented by characters like Noel Edmonds, whose career was famously 'saved' by his discovery of 'cosmic ordering'. That's the theory that suggests you get what you want by simply stating what it is and waiting for the universe to provide. Edmonds credits this hokey concept with rescuing his TV career, the cosmos having harnessed its timeless wisdom to gift him the baffling daytime show, Deal or No Deal.
Rhonda Byrne's bestselling self-help book, The Secret (Simon & Schuster, 2006), expounds much the same 'ask and ye shall receive' philosophy. But add the concept of focus and the notion becomes far more grounded. By simply identifying exactly what you want, and staying focused on it, you become more aware of all the things happening every day that may relate to it. If you're focused enough to follow up on each of them, you'll create even more enticing avenues to explore. This may have a spiritual air, but you have simply become increasingly motivated to attain your objective by exploring different avenues.
Not everyone is so keen. In his thought-provoking book Black Swan, 'philosopher-trader' Nassim Taleb touches on the idea of focus, warning that it raises the threat of blinding people to chance events. 'To be able to focus is a great virtue when you are a watch repairman, a brain surgeon or a chess-player,' he writes. 'But the last thing you need to do when dealing with uncertainty is "focus". This focus makes you a sucker; it translates into prediction problems ...'
Taleb is writing specifically about the markets, where too much knowledge in one area can lead to a lack of preparedness for unexpected events. In career terms, things are different. By establishing fixed aims, it enables you to draw those unexpected things in. A conversation on the bus may seem aimless, but you may soon find that your fellow passenger happens to have a skill that exactly suits your needs.
But before we get carried away with the philosophical, it's important to ensure that our focus is anchored in the everyday. As Winston Churchill famously said: 'The chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time.' Indeed, a distant focus may be essential for direction, but it's foolish to ignore the practicalities.
'You can't tackle a project, a goal or life in one go,' says Allen. 'It all comes down to "pick up phone, get number, open mouth, talk".' We're back to the driving analogy - no matter how well you can view that S-curve, you won't get anywhere if you're not operating the controls properly.
In these fast-moving times, staying focused on the task at hand is increasingly tricky. Technology has bred distractions, and work itself is changing. Back in the days when people actually manufactured things, a job would always result in something tangible. Nowadays, tasks are continuous and overlapping, and much time is spent fire-fighting. All this makes it harder to answer what used to be a simple question: 'What should I really be doing now?'.
For many, such disorientation gives rise to a continuous mental monologue, which Jurgen Wolff, author of Focus: The power of targeted thinking (Prentice Hall, 2008), calls the 'inner critic'. Says Wolff: 'A lot of people have a voice saying: "Even if you're doing something important, you should be doing three other things as well." That's incredibly distracting, and disempowering in terms of focus.'
Nowhere is the sense of being pulled in several conflicting directions more acute than in running one's own business. Whitbread likens it to handling a huge net. And to be truly focused, you have to manage the whole thing. 'You can't let stuff seep out just because it's boring,' she says. 'It's important to focus on minutiae, the little things people want to forget about. Like ringing a customer back when they've got a faulty mug that needs replacing. It's the less sexy side of the business, but it's crucial not to let that focus slip.'
As a day-to-day aid, she swears by that trusty old staple of time management: the to-do list. Yet how often do these lists, no matter how beautifully prioritised, get rewritten at the start of the next day, after you've failed to get round to more than just a couple of the tasks?
Allen suggests that to-do lists aren't able to cope with modern demands. In the same way that the average boss won't worry about where they need to be that day, as it's all in the trusty diary, Allen believes all the minutiae in your life should be written down - every phone-call you need to make, every task you need to complete. Desperate times call for desperate measures, of course, but once you get to the point of recording every little thing, you're veering dangerously close to that dreaded enemy of productivity, micro-management. Wouldn't it be easier just to make the call?
Indeed, focus shouldn't really need to be an effort. The best thing about it is that it's fun. Simply saying, 'I'm resolved to being more focused', doesn't change anything, and may instigate another round of tea-making or desk-tidying. 'Effective focus requires a right-brain approach,' says Wolff. 'Be more creative and you can do a lot more.'
'You feel physically different when you're focused,' says Whitbread. 'Energy creates energy.' And this counts as much between people as within the individual. Focus is a very attractive quality - at least, if it's handled in a way that brings others in. Get too focused on one thing and you risk becoming an obsessive; but get excited about your goals and it will act like a magnet for like-minded people.
Added focus gives people the incentive to overcome natural hurdles. A shy networker may show up at events and lurk in the shadows; but if they had a clear aim in mind for the future, it should be enough to make them start taking risks. And when these pay off, it can be exhilarating. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said: 'The world makes way for the man who knows where he's going.'
It makes sense. Get out there, and find the everyday focus to drive your career along that S-curve. It certainly beats a life stuck in a cave.
TEN WAYS TO RAZOR-SHARP FOCUS
Work out what you want to achieve. Sort that out and it suddenly lends meaning to everything you do. It's fun too. Set your long-term goal correctly and you may find more apparently random good events coming your way, because you're looking out for them. And all those niggly day-to-day tasks become easier to handle.
Slow down. Instead of racing to cross each job off the list so that you can get on to the next, give the task in hand the time it deserves. Doing it properly will energise you for the next thing, and mean you do that better too.
Keep a tidy desk. The fewer distractions around you, the easier it is to focus. The same goes for your PC too. If you're writing, keep Word open, but close down Gmail, Facebook and Betfair.
Build a routine. Work out how and when you work best: are you better at doing mundane stuff early, or is it best to leave that till the afternoon, when your mind starts winding down?
Approach tasks properly. When making a presentation at work, most people engage a different part of their personality than the one they use down the pub cracking jokes. Yet when approaching tasks in the office, we tend to go at it in whatever mood we happen to be. Find the right side of your character to suit the task.
Get it out of your head. This may mean a to-do list, a comprehensive list of calls, or writing each task on cue cards and not moving on until the first is complete. Find a system you trust - and stick to it. So much distraction comes from the nagging fear that we may not remember to do the things we think we need to.
Take a break. All work and no play makes Jill a dull girl ... so take your full lunch entitlement - setting aside an hour to unwind properly will recharge you and let you return in the afternoon with new-found focus. Don't work straight through the afternoon, either. If you can, enjoy a proper mid-afternoon break or, if your job allows it, go home when you've finished what needs doing.
Stay fresh. Drinking water aids concentration. Going for a walk gets the muscles working and the blood pumping and gives your eyes and mind chance to consider things in the round. And get away from the computer - try using paper and pen to get ideas going. If you want to avoid distractions, keep it analogue.
Don't camp in your inbox. Switch the e-mail ping-alert off, and check your messages only a few times a day - perhaps first thing, after lunch and before you go home. And don't go near your personal mail until you've done some work first.
Have fun. If you genuinely enjoy what you're doing, it becomes easier to stick at it. If you're fully absorbed in a task, you will enjoy it more. And reward yourself when you finish things.