Failing to Focus

Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you.

Proverbs 4:25 (ESV)

My twin boys, back from college, were looking forward to Thanksgiving: lots of food and back-to-back football. The Texans and the Lions were both playing unfocused football, turning over the football multiple times in the first quarter.

Not being a fan of either team I decided to get up, head to the kitchen table and finish reading yesterday’s newspaper. I asked the boys if they could turn down the volume of the TV; no response. I asked a second time; still nothing. What’s going on here, I thought to myself as I got up to confront them on their listening skills. As I looked at them, I realized that they couldn’t hear me because both had their earbuds in, laptops on and smart phones in their hands. “Guys, I thought you wanted to watch football!”  “We are”, they yelled back. “That’s not possible,” I said. “You can’t be watching football while you are watching YouTube videos and following twitter on your phones!” “Yes we can,” they insisted.

Is it possible to focus on three forms of electronic media at the same time?  Hardly. But that’s where our culture has pushed us. I would argue that multi-tasking has diminished our ability to focus, reduced the quality and quantity of our work and increased the level of stress we now have to deal with.

It’s interesting that the night before an exam, my boys are very good at focusing because they understand the consequences of not giving the subject matter their full attention. So, the problem really isn’t about focusing but rather it’s about saying “no” to all of the other things that can distract us from what’s truly important. 

We humans are very capable of multi-tasking when the tasks are simple, such as listening to music while cooking. It is a whole different story when you are trying to solve a complex problem, create a marketing plan or complete your tax return. If you don’t bring real focus to these tasks your efficiency level, creativity and quality of work goes down dramatically, while your stress level increases.

One international study cited by James Clear (Atomic Habits) found that the typical employee checks their email or smartphone at least once every 5 minutes. And on average, it takes 64 seconds to resume the task that you interrupted to check your cell phone. That would equal 1.7 hours of wasted time in an 8-hour workday!

Business Consultant William Treseder points out that after digital devices, the number two killer of workplace focus are meetings, which consume 35-55% of the average manager’s time. How many meetings have you been in that lack focus: no agenda; too many participants; no action items; no accountability?

Computer Scientist and Entrepreneur, Paul Graham focused on meetings as a productivity killer for people that are in the business of creating things.  In a short 2009 essay entitled “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule” Graham argues that your typical manager or executive is able to divide their day into bite-size, on-hour segments, and then have “speculative” meetings, which might or might not lead to a positive outcome. This would be a “let’s grab some coffee” meeting with a potential client, for example.  Graham, on the other hand, was running an IT startup and claimed that he didn’t have the luxury to divide his workday in this manner. He didn’t see himself as a “Manager” but rather a “Maker”, a creator, who needed larger chunks of uninterrupted time in which to focus on a problem and create a solution or develop a new product.

His argument makes total sense to me; aren’t we all “Makers” even if we aren’t running an IT start up? Don’t we use our time every day to create something useful for ourselves or our employer?  What about creating a hybrid schedule that incorporates both the Maker’s and Manager’s needs and abilities?

Most of us won’t be able to say “no” to all meetings, thus freeing our self up for those “big chunk” periods of quiet time when we can focus on really important projects. But maybe we can think about a hybrid schedule that blocks a few hours in the morning and pushes “must have” meetings to the afternoon. You might not be able to do this every day but what about one or two days a week?  That would be a first, big step that would give you time to focus on the really important things that you wish to accomplish. But further discipline is required: you will need to take care of all of those distractions that seek to steel your time AND reduce your focus. Can you turn off the notifications on your computer and cell phone; can you turn off your cell phone for a couple of hours? It won’t be easy, but I guarantee it works!  How do you think I was able to finish this newsletter?