In many ways, the things you pay attention to and focus on drives your success in life.
Without focus, it would be impossible for us to live in the modern world. At the same time, the world we live in is so ripe with distractions that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep our focus on any one thing for long periods of time.
Emotional intelligence pioneer Daniel Goleman tells us that there are three different types of focus: inner, other and outer. Goleman tells us that a well lived life demands that we be nimble in each.
By understanding and developing our skills in those three areas, we can improve our results in any area of our lives.
Let’s explore how to do just that.
The Anatomy of Attention
In order to understand focus, we need to first understand how attention works.
The best place to start is with the things that break our focus – distractions.
In today’s world, there are plenty of things to distract us from focussing on the things we need in order to succeed.
The two distractions
There are two main types of distractions – sensory and emotional.
Sensory distractions are easy to identify and to some extent, manage. For instance, when you are reading you tune out almost everything that is going on around you. Your brain weeds out the continuous flood of background sounds, shapes, colours, smells and so on.
Emotional distractions are harder to identify and much harder to manage. The biggest challenge comes from the emotional turmoil in our lives. Trying to focus on your work after you’ve had a blow up with a family member at home is all but impossible.
The two systems
Just as there are two types of distractions that can cause us to lose our focus, the brain has two systems that it operates.
First we have the bottom-up mind, which is:
- fast and operates in milliseconds;
- involuntary and always-on;
- intuitive, operating through networks of association;
- impulsive, driven by emotions;
- the executor of our habits and guides our actions;
- the manager of our mental models of the world.
Second, we have the top-down mind, which is:
- the seat of self-control, which can (sometimes) overpower automatic routines and emotionally driven impulses;
- able to learn new models, make new plans and take charge of our automatic repertoire – to an extent.
Our voluntary attention, willpower and intentional choices are all top-down. Our reflexive attention, impulses and habits are all bottom-up. Because of that, our mind is doing a continual dance between stimulus-driven attention and voluntary focus.
However, because your brain likes to conserve energy, it prefers using the bottom-up system. Any time we use the top-down system, we end up burning energy. That’s why learning new things or creating change in your life is hard – your brain doesn’t want you to do it because it’s easier not to.
When your mind is adrift
Your mind naturally wanders. If you ask people the question “are you thinking about something you are not currently doing?”, there’s a fifty-fifty chance that they’ll answer yes.
This obviously has implications for your ability to be “in the moment” and focus on the task at hand and it’s exactly why so much time, energy and money is focused on the concept of mindfulness. As pioneer of American psychology William James put it, “the voluntary bringing back of a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character and will.”
However, even a wandering mind has its uses. That’s because your daydreams are often focused on solving unresolved problems. It also allows for the exploration of previously unconnected ideas, which is the source of all creativity.
Your goal is to be able to engage in mind wandering when you want to and focused on the task at hand when you want to.
That may sound trivial, but it’s an important point. You only have the ability to remain focused for a finite amount of time and then you need to recharge your brain’s batteries, so to speak.
And as Goleman points out, surfing the web (no matter how mindlessly), playing video games or answering email doesn’t do the trick. However, things like taking a walk in nature and – you guessed it – meditation work perfectly.
Inner Focus: Self-Awareness
Now that we’ve covered how attention works, it’s time to move on the first area of focus you need to master – yourself.
Self-awareness and in particular the decoding of the internal cues that our bodies give us – holds the key to making great decisions in life.
There are two major streams of self-awareness.
“Me,” which is the part of you that creates stories about your past and future based on the sum total of your life experiences to date.
Then there is the “I,” which exists in the moment. This is the part of you that is in tune with your body, which helps you to determine whether or not a decision “feels” right.
Being aware of both the narratives you’ve built up over your life (so you can change them) and being in tune with your body are the two main ways you can continue to become more self-aware.
Seeing ourselves as others see us
No matter how good you get at self-awareness, you still won’t be able to get a complete picture until you see yourself as other people see you.
One surefire way to get an accurate view is to do a 360-degree evaluation, where you asked to rate yourself on a number of factors and then those self-ratings are checked against other people who have rated you for the same things.
Interestingly, studies have shown that the further up the organisational food chain you are, the greater the gap between the scores you give yourself and the scores other people give you.
Assuming that you are a leader (or want to be one some day), continually checking these types of ratings will help you understand how you are perceived.
You’ll also want to consider getting advice from people you trust whenever you are making big decisions in your life – they will help you cover up your blind spots.
We won’t spend a ton of time on this, but your amount of willpower determines a lot about your success in life. Numerous studies show that children who exhibit high amounts of willpower go on to make more money and make better decisions about their health. They even commit less crime, if that’s something you’ve been losing sleep over.
At its core, willpower is the ability to remain focused on one thing while your impulses or desires are distracting you.
When an impulse is distracting you – lets say there is a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies on the table – your reward circuits are focused on what’s tempting about them – they are chewy, hot and delicious.
Here’s what’s interesting – just by shifting your focus onto something different about the cookies – they are round, have dots on them, and are made in an oven – you have switched your focus and lowered the chances of you reaching for the cookie and eating it.
Becoming aware of how and why things tempt you and actively shifting your attention away from those things when they happen (self awareness at its best), will help you make better decisions
Other Focus: Reading Others
Empathy is the ability to focus on what other people experience. There are three main varieties.
Cognitive empathy lets you take another person’s perspective, comprehend their emotional state and manage your own emotions while you evaluate theirs. These are mostly top-down operations.
Emotional empathy is when you feel what the other person is feeling. This is a bottom-up process, and mostly formed during infancy – you are wired to feel another person’s joy or pain even before you can think about it.
Finally there is empathic concern which takes this one step further by leading us to care about the other person and to take action if the situation calls for it. This is both a bottom-up (automatic) and top-down (thoughtful) function and getting the mix right has implications for your life.
For instance, many people who stir up too many sympathetic feelings for other people end up suffering themselves, to the point of losing their ability to take action.
On the flip side, other people who show no sympathy for others (either naturally or by training) lose the ability to put themselves in other people’s shoes and also lose the ability to read other people’s emotional cues – a great predictor of success in most professions.
The best way you can practice reading other people, it turns out, is to amp up your empathic concern to a level that allows you to connect with the other person, but not so much that you lose the ability to control the emotions you feel by doing so.
Outer Focus: The Bigger Context
The last area of focus to explore is the bigger context.
In order to understand the bigger picture in things requires us to understand patterns and systems.
Systems, Goleman points out, are invisible to the naked eye. As a human, we all struggle with system blindness. We are very bad at understanding things where the cause and effect are distant in time and space. Because of that, many of our solutions work in the short-term, but in the long-run end up making problems worse.
Here’s an example. The simple and obvious solution for traffic jams is to build more and wider roads. In the short-term (after the roads are built), it’s easier to get around, but very quickly, people start making more car trips, moving further away and buy more cars. Making the long-run traffic problem worse.
This means that human beings have a very tough time grasping the concept of threats that come over an even longer time horizon like global warming.
Rather than focus on the negatives (like our carbon footprint), Goleman suggests, we should focus on the positives in our actions, which we can see in the here and now.
The reason this is a better approach is that negative emotions are poor motivators in the long run – we are wired to want to avoid them. Positive emotions, on the other hand, are great motivators and can be sustained for long periods of time.
The Well-Focused Leader
Ultimately, how you put all of this together as a leader will have a huge impact on your team’s success or failure.
As the preceding sections show, we all have a limited amount of focus to direct on achieving our goals. Directing that focus where it’s needed most is your most important leadership activity.
As Goleman points out, organisations need leaders with a focus on generating results. However, those results will be more robust in the long run when leaders don’t just tell people what to do or do it themselves. Instead, leaders need an other focus, motivated to help other people be successful too.
The more you widen your focus to include inner, other and outer inputs, the more effective and well rounded your leadership style will be.
Hope you found this summary useful. Until next time…
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