focus – noun – the centre of interest or activity. (Source: Oxford Dictionaries)

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson
(source: Wikipedia)

Being effective in relationships and meetings takes concentrated effort and focus on the individuals we are interacting with in the moment.

“Concentration is the secret of strength in politics, in war, in trade, in short in all management of human affairs.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Multi-tasking humans are largely mythical. We can do something physical, or something that has become instinctive through practise at the same time as something mental, but we can’t do more than one thing that requires our full cognitive attention at once. Hopefully this is self-evident. If something requires our conscious thought and attention, we won’t be fully productive if our attention is also elsewhere.

Our brains are like a single CPU with an interrupt based context switching algorithm. Each time we try to work on something new our brains have to swap in the context and memories from another part of our brains and move the current working set to temporary storage. Our memories though are much more complex than simple computer memory. Almost limitlessly expandable our memories are truly amazing. However, retrieving information from them is often difficult and unreliable. Our short term memory is quickly emptied and the long term store harder to access. This has a very definite and real cost when we are constantly switching between two or more tasks or conversations.

Some people may be more adept at task switching than others, but even for those who are really good at task switching, there will still be a cost to attempting to multi-task. Improving our short term memory is a good way to improve our ability to task switch successfully.

A good way to improve our short term memory is to improve our focus and to try to stop the subconscious task switching we are doing. Like many things, being able to truly concentrate takes practise. If we regularly operate on many tasks at once and practise task switching, I think we are actively damaging our focus and ability to truly concentrate. We could be unwittingly training our brains down a path toward attention deficit.

There are many ways in which we organise our lives today which are making us less productive than I think we could be.

Email and instant messaging applications alert us the second a message arrives. There is an expectation that we respond quickly. Turn off the visual prompts and sounds alerting you to new messages and check your email consciously on a schedule that is right for you. Typically, about 40 minutes is as long as we can sustain concentrated effort on one thing before our minds start to wander. You may find that a longer or shorter interval works better for you. Experiment to find what works. Build in natural breaks at about this frequency and check your emails then. Sign out of your instant messaging applications when you need to focus your attention on getting things done. Turn off your mobile phone, switch your phone to voice mail. Obviously as a leader there are times when you need to be contactable. Build this time into your schedule. I don’t think you should let all your time be subject to constant interruption though.

I think the real danger to leaders is that this pattern of interrupted work and task switching could lead to a lack of focus in our interactions with our teams. In our interactions and relationships with people I think it is critical that we focus all our attention in the moment and on the individuals before us. If we want to motivate and inspire I think we can only do this by building strong relationships with our teams and this requires focus in the moment. A discussion with a distracted leader is very demotivating and also likely to lead to miscommunication and misunderstanding.

More and more I am seeing people take their BlackBerrys and other smart phones into meetings. Ostensibly to check their messages during the meeting. I think many of us are becoming addicted to checking email and staying in contact. Do we want to give the impression that our emails are more important than the people we are meeting with? Hopefully the answer to that is a resounding YES. In which case, turn it off or leave it behind. I have to confess that this is something I have been guilty of. I have though come to the realisation that this is disrespectful to those I am meeting with, it is also making me less effective at those meetings. If I don’t need to listen to part of a meeting, then I shouldn’t be there. The presence of someone who is not focussed on the goals of the meeting will be distracting to the others present and detrimental to the meeting.

When we are at home, I think we should make sure we are focussed on the people there. Give them 100% of our attention and give work 100% of our attention when we are at work. If we need to work in the evenings, or to catch up on something, that’s OK, I just think it’s better if we are open about this and carve out some dedicated time for this purpose. During this time, be totally focussed on the work so we can complete it as effectively, efficiently and quickly as we can and get back to our family time and then give them 100%. Don’t try and get some work done while our spouse is telling us about their day. They will feel under-valued and ignored and our work will also be poor quality as our minds struggle to switch between the two contexts. Don’t check work mail while being with our families. Make sure they get some time where they have all of our attention, where we are not thinking about problems at work. As well as helping us improve our focus, this will help ground us, remind us why we do what we do and improve our personal resilience as leaders.

About Sam Meldrum

Sam Meldrum is a Partner at Barnett Waddingham LLP where he leads the IT team. I have an interest in leadership, business, economics, technology, Christianity, running, cycling​ and photography. You can find my other stuff on the web by visiting​ or follow me on Twitter: @SamMeldrum.
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2 Responses to Focus

  1. Tom Meldrum says:

    Brilliant. I am guilty of all of these misdemeanours. Can I promise to work on being better at focussing on others…?

  2. Sam Meldrum says:

    Me too. I’ve just reread this again and committed again to making this a priority.

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