By IMRAN HASHIM
Happy 2014! Another year, another set of aspirations and goals. But wait, let’s reflect for a moment and look back at our past. The many ups and downs, achievements and setbacks, and the ever so important question – Did all the ambitions set 12 months ago meet their target? (Kudos if you say yes)
As usual, it’s that time of the year again. We plan and we frame our minds right, promising ourselves this year is going to be better than last.
If your aim is to read more books, you’re in luck as this piece is a take on the book Focus: The Hidden Driver for Excellence by Daniel Goleman. Perhaps the takeaways can shed some light on achieving success in other objectives as well.
A study was conducted to look into the area of mindless reading. The result: a human mind typically wanders up to 40% while scanning for information. That is a big chunk of lost opportunity especially if it requires critical decision making.
If you would like to know how you can pay attention for a sustained period of time, and the benefits of it, read along the seven key steps. Ready, set, focus.
1. Attention 101
Before you can develop a laser-like focus prowess, understand that distractions are everywhere. At work or at home, we are constantly overwhelmed by interruptions.
Researchers have clustered them into two main varieties: sensory and emotional. The former is straightforward (notice how you have not paid full attention to your surroundings at the moment), while the latter is more challenging (try not to focus on that voice calling your name in the background).
As human beings, we are emotional by nature. When crisis hits, we tend to lose control even for the slightest bit. Our ability to focus ties directly to our awareness to regulate emotional disruptions.
While that might suggest complete immunity from emotional turbulence, neuroscientists believe that is not necessarily the case. Our brain has two separate semi-independent mental systems: one operates constantly, taking charge of our habitual routines (bottom-up), the other can override repertoires and flex to learn new models (top-down).
The key to better focus is then the strength of our neural lock-ins, and in moments that requires our best devotion is the top-down mental system. And of course, practice makes them better – just like how Cristiano Ronaldo can easily outwit his opponents and score a goal without looking. His ability to read the game is a result of his mastery of requisite skills of dribbling and sprinting.
The findings, however, do not discount the value of a mind adrift. There are a lot of opportunities to be had, creative breakthroughs, and unexpected insights when we are in a state of open awareness – accepting whatever floats into the mind.
The balancing act comes into play when you have to be open to possibility, and then homing in on it to produce results.
2. Looking Glass Self
There are moments that call for your attention to make a decision, and more often than not you will go by “gut-feeling”. As it turns out, those decisions are made in line with your inner compass, determined by your deepest vales and purposes.
These are usually culminated from life experiences, creating an inner rudder in ourselves giving a sense of what feels right (or wrong). And this is actually proven by science.
Hearing “your inner voice” depends on your body’s signal. A part of our brain called insula monitors our internal organs and maps our body’s insides – effectively acts as a control centre. How well we attune to our inner workings measures our self-awareness. Simply put, the bigger your insula is, the better aware you are with your emotions.
Sometimes you just cannot rely on rational analysis for complex decisions; rather you let your inner rudder guide you. Try explaining falling in love with logical reasoning – you will find it hard.
Having a sense of self-awareness is important especially when dealing with your surroundings. The person that we think we are may not resemble the same for others.
Unfortunately for some, the higher they are on the corporate ladder, the bigger the gap between one’s own self-perception and others’. It is important to note that self-knowledge begins with self-revelation.
There is a dangerous trap of thinking we know everything we need to. That same mindset was the reason why the 2003 invasion of Iraq happened (despite no evidence of weapons of mass destruction), and again in 2008 global financial crisis (toxic subprime mortgage derivatives no one fully understood).
Executive attention, or self-discipline, is key to self-regulation. This starts early in our childhood. In a two-decade long study, it was discovered that self-control is a powerful predictor of emotional wellbeing, interpersonal skills, financial success, and adaptability.
3. See the world through others’ eyes
Just as important as having a degree of self-awareness is to be sensitive to others by their emotional cues. Having this ability is regarded as helpful to build quick rapport with people, and a whole industry is dedicated to nurturing this powerful social skill (Neuro Linguistic Programming among others).
A person who is trained to have the eye for social cues can sense the immediate need of the individuals or groups she encounters. The charming dinner host would know how to approach the guests and make them feel at ease.
The top sportsmen know their opponents’ next move from the slightest visible gesture. Even in business, the ability to perform excellent client experience can go a very long way. But it’s not just reading others that matters. Understanding their perspectives takes on a whole different level: it requires empathy.
In resonating with our counterparts, we recognise what the other person thinks, reflects with their feelings. Empathy then moves us to care about them. This approach is already wired in our brain, firing up our primal systems for caring and attachment.
By nature however, our circuits are designed for face-to-face situations. With the advent of technology, this aptitude is worryingly diminishing.
Now, our communication channels are mostly confined to electronic devices, forcing us to read between the lines in the search for cognitive empathy – a daunting task that if misinterpreted could cause unwanted repercussions.
Empathy is a great leadership tool. It gives us the ability to communicate effectively regardless of the people or culture you are dealing with.
That explains why the best doctors are so good at what they do on a stretched period of time – not just their technical skills, but the ability to connect with their patients. To negate sensitivity overload, medical practitioners are trained to balance with a level of detached concern, enabling them to focus on the job while letting know the patients that they are being taken care of.
4. The bigger context
Above and beyond our individual scope, there is a bigger system at play. The various patterns, each interconnected can have a huge rippling impact that begins from a tiny signal – or the butterfly effect as it is more commonly known.
In the grand scheme of things, there is some truth to what we do actually matters, which is why reading and navigating through the system is critical.
Increasingly, we are told how valuable big data is – a gold mine for proponents of data analytics. Sifting through them is no easy task, but done right, patterns will emerge.
Patterns that are a direct result from pinpointing to the centre of collective attention. Making the connection is a tough job. Knowledge is power, yes, but the effective use of it is far more precious.
It is that same understanding of the big context that makes mega companies like Google able to get far ahead. From a small search company to becoming a technology giant, they have made their presence felt and impacted globally.
Same goes for Amazon, from an online book retailer to a top class service and infrastructure provider in web and cloud computing space.
Following a trend is one thing, but starting it requires a whole different ball game. The ability to focus and make sense of the complex intricacies of how things work offers boundless reward. It gives you the uncanny view of the future.
5. 10,000 hours, and more
By now you would have been familiar with the notion of 10,000 hours of practice can make you be proficient at a specific task made popular by Malcolm Gladwell. That idea became a highly debatable argument, with varying levels of acceptance.
The examples given were of course, highly compelling – the Harvard drop outs, the likes of Bill Gates made his billions from founding Microsoft, an inevitable outcome from polishing his computer skills. Almost suggesting anyone can make it if they clock the magical hours.
The hard truth, based on the original study, tells the other half that completes the equation. Mindless repetition does not guarantee success. Instead, tweaking and incremental improvement holds the key. But how would you know you are making positive strides with limited benchmark?
Enter smart practice – a feedback loop meant to identify errors and correct them. Practising without a pointer is pointless. Even the best and greatest have coaches to guide them, spotting mistakes and weaknesses, and pushing them to perfection.
By doing the repeated task with added enhancement, it will come naturally. And that is when contentment sets in.
Top performers never stop learning. Skills can become plateau or worse, outdated. Our brain, just like any muscle, needs active exercise to expand. Training in the mental gym, just like a fitness programme, focuses on the how – introduce varieties to see incremental benefits.
6. Think different
On an organisational level, great focus separates the best from the rest. Sensing an important market trend, a well-executed strategy, and the collective dexterity of everyone in the company can make or break the business. You can consider yourself lucky if all that is inherent in your organisation. More often than not, the leadership has the ultimate responsibility to make that clear to everyone and be in the driver’s position.
Given the delicate balancing of resources in a company, and the division of labour to focus on different aspects of the business, organisational focus is a scarce supply. But having that collaborative viewpoint, there is nothing to stop them from putting a dent in the universe.
Apple Inc is the poster boy example of this, in particular during Steve Jobs’ return to the company. A visionary with unmatchable tenacity and passion, his life mission is heavily ingrained in the whole corporation, almost like a DNA where every single person is fully on board with the direction.
His first action upon returning to the helm was to simplify Apple’s product offering, focusing on what really matters – regular users and professionals.
Then came along iPod, followed by iPhone, and iPad into the market. Each with rippling effects to the industry, forever changing consumer electronics (and the digital lifestyle that comes with it) as we know it.
Contrast that with RIM, the makers of the Blackberry smartphone. Originally a remarkable invention ahead of its time, the device changed business communication.
Unfortunately, instead of keep pushing ahead, it has fallen behind for one simple reason: their leaders’ inability to see changing trends and consumer needs. In hindsight, they could have taken a point or two from another fallen legend, Nokia (now a business unit of Microsoft).
7. The big, long-term picture
Just as Google and Apple are pioneering the future, businesses are all in this together, to focus on the long run. Short-term gains should be a thing of the past, sacrificing our immediate desires in the interest of our shrinking resources. More and more corporations are turning into sustainable development, working with partners to ensure a win-win situation for all.
The message here is not all about the doom and gloom. Again, in the grand scheme of things, the more we expand our horizon, the better our awareness of the larger system becomes. There is a need for great leaders with a firm understanding of long view.
It’s easier to appoint someone to take up the difficult endeavour, but remember the butterfly effect – every little change can impact the bigger system.
The seven steps flows and expands from the core. Beginning with understanding the anatomy of attention, linking to self-awareness and empathy with others, followed by contextual understanding and all the way to the big picture, they all converge on one common track: the need to focus.
Focus in its entirety is fast becoming a rarity. Information overload at hyper speed is real and constant risk in today’s society, making it easy to lose focus in a blink. The choice is ours to make. And if you really want your new year to be fulfilling, you know what to do: get on it and never lose focus!