Monday Mornings with Madison

Attention Deficit, Part 1

Does Your Focus Need More Focus?

There is a famous line from the movie Karate Kid (the 2010 remake) when the Mr. Han, the Karate teacher, tells his pupil — who insists he is concentrating intently — that “Your focus needs more focus.”  Despite the student’s insistence that he was focused, his level of focus was lacking.  It is a problem that possibly everyone grapples with today.  With all the diversions and noise that compete for our attention and energy in today’s world, it can be very easy to fall prey to distraction.

Do these scenarios sound familiar?  Three people are in a meeting and one or more are repeatedly interrupted by incoming calls or text messages.  Two colleagues are speaking by phone and suddenly one person is distracted replying to an email.   Outside, a person walks down the street but is so completely immersed reading LinkedIn posts that he is almost hit by a car.  Indoors and out, attention is drawn to pinging smart phones, rotating billboards, ticker-tape scrolling news feeds, bus bench ads, flashing neon signs and more, all screaming “Look at me!”.  The demands for attention are everywhere.

The truth is that, for most people, their focus does need more focus.  The dictionary defines focus as “the concentration of attention or energy on something.” Attention and energy are essential elements of focus.  Attention describes how well you can shut out all else in order to give one thing full consideration or thought.  Energy relates to how much or how long you can sustain that focus.  That begs the question, just how much and how long should a person be able to focus on something without being distracted (by choice or chance)?  How deeply and sharply should someone be able to concentrate on one thing without redirecting or quitting?  More importantly, what — if anything — can be done to improve focus?  And, if everyone is being driven to distraction, just how much is this lack of focus — by employees and customers alike — affecting businesses?

The Rising Value of Focus and Attention

Management guru Peter Drucker once wrote, “Success comes from focusing on one thing for a long time… because it takes time for the brain to really get into something…”  The ability to focus has perhaps always been important, but with today’s increasing noisy world, it is becoming possibly one of the most decisive factors impacting business results.

In fact, according to Thomas Davenport and John Beck, in today’s information-flooded world, the scarcest resource is not ideas or even talent: it’s attention. In their book titled, The Attention Economy, they argue that unless companies learn to effectively capture, manage, and keep attention — both internally and out in the marketplace — they’ll fall hopelessly behind.

“We live in an attention economy. In this new economy, capital, labor, information, and knowledge are all in plentiful supply. It’s easy to start a business, to get access to customers and markets, to develop a strategy, to put up a Web site, to design ads and commercials. What’s in short supply is human attention. Telecommunications bandwidth is not a problem, but human bandwidth is. At one point, software magnates had the ambition to put ‘information at your fingertips’.  Now we’ve got it, and in vast quantities. But no one will be informed by it, learn from it, or act on it unless they’ve got some free attention to devote to the information. Unfortunately, most organizations have precious little attention to spare.”

The Attention Economy, Chapter 1,
Thomas Davenport and John Beck

Indeed, if focus is the new currency of business and the key to individual success, then it is imperative for every business owner and manager to learn how to get and keep attention and for every individual to improve their own personal ability to focus.  But how?  First, let’s consider how to boost an individual’s ability to focus.

Your Focus on Steroids

If attention is the currency of success, then how does a person go about improving their own personal focus?  How does one block out the noise and nonsense in order to really concentrate on what matters.  What can you do if your focus needs more focus?  One technique which scientists are consistently finding helps to improve focus and attention is meditation.  However, we aren’t talking about meditation in a spiritual sense, but rather physical meditation as it relates to mindfulness….the ability to quiet the mind, focus attention on the present, and dismiss distractions.  Examining the benefits of meditation dates back to the work of psychologist Ellen Langer.  She demonstrated in the 1970s that mindful thought could lead to improvements in cognitive and vital functions in older adults.

However, recent studies show there are even greater benefits to meditation than that.  Even in small doses, meditation can effect impressive changes in the ability to focus — at a basic neural level.  A study, conducted by researchers from the University of Washington in 2012, examined the effects of meditation training on multitasking in a real-world setting. (Multitasking is actually a persistent, insidious myth. In truth, what really happens is that attention is shifted rapidly from task to task. Two bad things happen as a result.  Not as much attention is devoted to any one thing, and the quality of attention is sacrificed in the process.)  However, the study found that those who had meditation training had an increased ability to focus and less attentional flightiness than those who did not have meditation training.

Besides increasing their ability to concentrate significantly, those who did meditation training were able to stay on task longer and they switched between tasks less frequently.  Also, those who had meditation training spend their time more efficiently.  It took them 20% less time to do any task.  They also remembered what they did better than those who had no meditation training.

Meditation has also been shown to improve connectivity inside the brain’s attentional neural networks, as well as between attentional and medial frontal regions.  These are changes that save us from distraction.  According to a 2012 study at Emory University, meditation helped the attention networks in the brain to communicate better, with fewer interruptions.  In that study, meditation was associated with enhanced connectivity between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain involved in attention monitoring and working memory, and the right insula, an area in the brain associated with how well we monitor our own feelings and thoughts.  That is considered a key waypoint between the two major attention networks, the default and the executive.  In turn, that resulted in more effective overall management of a person’s finite attentional resources.

Meditation seems to be an excellent way to boost individual focus.  Besides mediation, more sleep, water and exercise all seem to also help improve focus.  Last but not least, when feeling like focus is waning, following the “Five More” rule. Whatever the task, just do ‘five more.’  Five more minutes of the task at hand.  Five more pages of reading.  Five more emails to answer.  Just as trainers help athletes build their physical stamina by pushing past the point of exhaustion, it helps to push past frustration or block out distractions in order to increase the ability to stay focused.

Those are all good tips for increasing individual focus.  However, is there something that can help businesses to get and keep the attention of their employees and customers?  There is!  Stay tuned next week as we look at how businesses are turning attention management into a potent competitive advantage and what attention-deprived companies can do to avoid losing employees, customers, and market share.

Quote of the week

“One reason so few of us achieve what we truly want is that we never direct our focus; we never concentrate our power. Most people dabble their way through life, never deciding to master anything in particular.” Tony Robbins



© 2014, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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