A leader’s most precious resource is not their time. It’s their focused attention, their ability to be present. Time merely passes, while focused attention makes things happen. When we’re able to gather and direct our attention toward a particular task or interaction, we can have a significant impact in a minimal amount of time. But when we’re unable to concentrate on the work at hand, all the time in the world is insufficient. So what are the implications of this for leaders?
Leaders must recognize how essential it is to work at enhancing their ability to direct their attention and minimize unhelpful distractions. One of the most important steps in this process is managing emotions. Psychologist Victor Johnston describes emotions as “discriminant hedonic amplifiers,” meaning they boost various signals in our mental landscape, drawing our attention toward certain issues and events and away from others. In other words, emotions are attention magnets.
Consequently, awareness and regulation of our emotions are central to the productive use of our attention. Ed Batista, executive coach and an instructor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, offers these practical steps leaders can take.
3 Ways to Improve Focus By Managing Your Emotions
1. Build Capacity
We can expand our attentive capacity through a commitment to practices such as meditation, journaling, time in nature, regular physical activity, and good sleep hygiene. All of these activities support our ability to direct our focus, filter out distractions, and manage our emotions, and we can often realize their benefits with a modest investment of time. Recent research indicates meditating for just a few minutes a day, spending just one hour a week in nature, or jotting down a few reflective notes in the evening has a noticeable impact on well being – and these benefits have a positive impact on a leaders’ effectiveness. The key is a consistent commitment to each daily or weekly practice.
These activities are often enjoyable in themselves; however, they aren’t indulgences – they’re investments in our ability to operate at peak effectiveness. High-performing professionals often enjoy success early in their careers by working longer and forgoing activities such as sleep, and exercise. But while those sacrifices may temporarily expand our capacity for throughput, they actually diminish our capacity for focused attention. While more senior leaders continue to work hard, what allows them to add value isn’t the extra hours spent working, but rather the quality of their focused attention while they’re at work.
2. Plug Leaks
Attention is finite, and our ability to focus in the moment is severely limited. Because distractions can fatally undermine effective leadership, it’s critical to avoid “attention leaks.” For example, the functions on our phones and other devices that beep, blink and thrust red numbers in our faces are designed to capture our attention and create a sense of urgency… But how often are any of these interruptions truly urgent? Almost never. Turn them off.
Another attention-destroying practice is what we’ve come to call “multi-tasking,” an utterly misnamed concept. While insignificant tasks requiring minimal cognitive effort can be performed in parallel, the truly meaningful work – through which most leaders add value – requires a much more intense level of focus. One-on-one conversations, facilitation or decision-making in meetings and creative thought and ideation warrant a leader’s focused attention. Multi-tasking in those environments is inefficient, as switching contexts results in a loss of time and focus before an individual can return to a deeper level of thought.
3. Create Space
Leaders typically face intense demands on their time (in part because everyone wants their attention), and if they’re not careful they can find themselves booked nonstop for days on end. It’s important to maintain some open space in the calendar, on a weekly or even daily basis, allowing for more creative thinking and helping replenish our stores of attention.
This inevitably involves disappointing people, all of whom believe their issue is worthy of the leader’s time, but productive leaders realize they can’t meet all of these requests and must ignore many of them. Here leaders require help from their senior team, family and friends, and perhaps most importantly, their executive assistants. Executive assistants are uniquely positioned to help leaders protect open space on their calendars, but can also undermine the process if they don’t understand this responsibility.
One final thought: If you’re a leader sitting in a meeting, and it isn’t worth your focused attention, then you’re serving a theatrical function. Sometimes this makes sense. There’s a place for organizational theater. But more often the whole organization is suffering because your most precious resource is being wasted. Privately let the organizers of the meeting know you’ll attend in the future when you’re needed, and excuse yourself. And if it’s your meeting, then you may well be wasting everyone’s time and attention – they may all be there in a theatrical function because they’re deferring to your authority. Have a candid conversation with a trusted ally and get some feedback on the utility of your meetings.
Could you use help in any of these areas? At VITAL WorkLife, we understand managers and supervisors need strong leadership skills to effectively lead. We can help by providing the tools necessary to build and lead productive teams, including:
- Leadership Training
- Executive Coaching
See more articles for helping build leadership skills on our blog or contact us 24/7/365 at 800.383.1908 today.
Source: Harvard Business Review