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“What is it you want your people to do better?” I pose this question to every client as I prepare for a workshop. This time, I was speaking to, Hank, an executive at 3M. He was driving an initiative to improve innovative thinking and shorten the time between idea and implementation. Hank didn’t hesitate to answer, “Focus! In order to work together and create new ideas, we have to get all of our minds centered on an issue, but I can’t get them to stop looking at their blasted laptops or phones. Everyone is so distracted, we can’t get anything done.” When I first started hearing about this problem from clients a number of years ago, the solution seemed easy; just make a rule that all digital devices must be turned off during meetings. But, even with such rules in place, the ability to focus among modern humans has diminished to the point where our mental productivity is tragically hampered.
Too many people have fooled themselves into thinking that they can multi-task and still be effective; effective listeners, effective thinkers, and effective problem solvers. The truth is, multi-tasking is a myth; and neuroscience proves it. The part of the brain that conducts our high-level thinkin’—the cerebral cortex—is a sequential organism. It can only handle one task at a time. Yes, it can switch from one thought to another quickly, depending on the individual, but it cannot effectively hold two thoughts at once. To attempt to do so is a self-defeating exercise. And, in order to be at our mental best, we need complete focus. We need what the Japanese call kime (“kee-may”), or focus. As in many Asian disciplines, the ability to focus on a single task is paramount. The tuning out of all distractions allows for mastery of one’s discipline. An old martial arts saying is, “He who chases two rabbits, gets no dinner.” The lesson is often illustrated in the following story.
Kiyohisa, a martial arts master in Japan, once took one of his students to attend a Noh Theatre performance. Noh is a form of classical musical drama that began in 14th century Japan. As in many Asian disciplines, Noh has masters and apprentices. Since Kiyohisa was a master in his discipline, he was eager to see Hideto, a well-known master of Noh Theatre, employ his craft. During the performance, while Kiyohisa’s young student was entertained by the play, Kiyohisa kept his eyes rivetted on Hideto. He marveled at the intensity of Hideto’s performance. When the performance ended, the young student asked his master what he thought of the play. Kiyohisa responded, “It was excellent. Hideto had superb kime; he only lost it once. I believe he was distracted by a gentleman in the front row.” Since Kiyohisa was well known, he and his student were invited backstage to meet Hideto. Kiyohisa said, “Your performance was a pleasure to watch!” Hideto responded, “I was mostly satisfied with it as well. I only broke kime once. I was distracted by a man in the front row. I must work to keep better focus next time.” Being students of different arts did not change how each valued focus, and its importance in mastery.
It is easy to see how a lack of focus can be dangerous in disciplines that may cause injury. Even a single second of distraction can be hazardous. But, the dangers of a lack of focus extend beyond getting punched during a sparring match. Examine those who are the best at what they do, and you will discover that they all share a common approach; to do their best work, they create environments in which all distractions are removed. From artists and writers, to accountants and mechanics; focus marks the difference between average and excellent. Dalton Trumbo, one of the most celebrated writers in US history, would lock himself in the bathroom and sit in a tub of water while writing. Some considered his demand for absolute solitude selfish or eccentric, but those people didn’t write Roman Holiday or Spartacus.
My profession, improvisation, also values focus. One of the classic Eight Rules of Improvisation is Listen, Watch, and Concentrate. This rule demands that all members of a team pay as much attention to the action as they would want on their own behalf. This may sound like a simple rule, but it goes beyond just telling people to pay attention to what is going on. Working together effectively isn’t simply a matter of taking turns, it is realizing that the other person cannot do his or her best work without the complete focus of the team. Anyone knows this who has given a presentation to a roomful of people who are mentally elsewhere. Theatre professionals are taught, If you break focus during a performance, every other actor onstage is forced to break focus until you get back into character.
Sadly, Americans’ ability to focus is getting worse by the day. I watch meetings where people glance at their phones every other minute. Some people have laptops open and are scanning multiple pages at once during a presentation. The onslaught of social media has fooled our brains into thinking we are receiving input, when all we are really getting is neural stimulation. And the need for constant stimulation has destroyed our ability to focus on a single conversation, line or thought, or workplace issue, for more than a few minutes. As a result, we check texts and e-mail at times when our focus should be elsewhere. We justify our lack of focus by telling ourselves that we must remain connected so as not to miss important calls. Yes, some clients need to hear from us right away, but the majority of time spent scanning screens and clicking phones is not only unnecessary, it is counter-productive. You know how you blame other drivers for dangerous habits on the road, when you pull the same stunts? People do the same with distractions. They hate it when people don’t pay attention when they are speaking at a meeting, but allow themselves those same distractions by labeling them necessary.
How hard is it to keep focus? In the course of writing this column, I switched to the e-mail screen four times, silenced a cell phone calendar alert, ran to the living room to see what the dogs were barking at, and called a company member to discuss an upcoming workshop. (Physician, heal thyself.) To my credit, however, when I am speaking with a client, I physically turn away from the computer. I sometimes go so far as to close my eyes so there are no visual distractions that could break my kime.
The next time you think you can multi-task, remind yourself that your brain can’t do it any better than the other 7.7 billion brains on the planet. And, your lack of focus hurts more than just you, it forces everyone else out of character. Chase one rabbit, and you’ll get dinner.
Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.