Pieces of the Personal Effectiveness Puzzle, #1: Sustain Your Focus

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 19, Issue No. 8a
December 1, 2020

By Dan Coughlin


Being effective as an individual is like putting together a set of very important pieces to complete a puzzle. Each piece is important on its own and needs to be nurtured and developed and connected to the other pieces. In this series on Personal Effectiveness, we will explore 12 topics. We begin with the importance of sustaining your focus on whatever topic you want to impact.

The Value of Paying Attention

In order to do well at anything we need to really pay attention.

That simple sentence has ramifications for today as well as this week, month, year, and decade.

There is so much involved in that one sentence:

  • Getting better at the skill of paying attention in order to really focus on one important thing at a time.
  • Deciding what to pay attention to.
  • Deciding how long to pay attention to it.
  • Deciding what nuances within it we want to give special attention to.
  • Deciding what not to pay attention to.

However, no matter how complicated this topic becomes as we peel back the layers of the onion, it still comes down to this:

In order to do well at anything we need to really pay attention.

Practice Paying Attention

There are times in a given day when you really need to be able to focus. However, getting good at sustaining focus requires practice.

In a typical soccer game there about a dozen good shots on goal that have a chance of going in. That’s for both teams combined. The 20 field players touch the ball thousands of times in a game, but only a dozen of those touches result in good shots that might get past the two goalies.

To get ready to make a quality shot players will practice shooting hundreds and hundreds of times. When they practice they will do some things that never happen in a game like pointing their toes down, leaning over a ball that another player is holding on the ground, and striking the ball over and over without it going anywhere. Imagine practicing something hundreds of times that you might only do a few times in an actual game.

That’s the way it is with being able to pay attention during a work day. You will only be in a state of deep focus for a small part of the day, but you have to be ready to actually focus.

The practice of Mindfulness is a way to improve your skill at paying attention. This involves doing something that you won’t be doing during the work day, but it will help you sustain your focus in your work.

Try this exercise for three minutes. Put an object of any kind in front of you. Focus only on that item. Any time a thought or an emotion enters into your awareness just acknowledge it and calmly let it go. Don’t engage with that thought or emotion. Little by little you will develop the ability to calmly stay focused on one thing and to let go of any other thought or emotion.

When you put this skill into your work day, you can focus on doing something or thinking about something without letting other thoughts or emotions distract you from your activity. You can just acknowledge the thought or the emotion, choose not to engage with it, and watch it slide out of your awareness. As you stay focused, you can dig deeper and deeper into the topic at hand.

Decide on Where You’re Best as an Attention-Giver

Some people are very good at giving attention to creating something that has no immediate practical value. i.e. writing a chapter in a novel, working on a painting, creating a workbook for a seminar, or developing a part of a song.

Other people are very good at paying attention to practical details: a car’s gas tank, taxes that need to be paid, doctor visits that need to be scheduled, and travel plans that need to be executed.

Both types of focus are important, but not everyone is equally as good at both areas of focus.

Norman and Mary Rockwell were an example of this. Norman could sit in his studio and concentrate on creating a painting that told a meaningful story. Mary guided the details of their business and home life. Each person brought great value to their marriage by focusing within a specific realm.

Select Your Area of Focus

A rule of reality is you can’t focus on everything so choose carefully.

I had cataract surgery on both my eyes this summer. My doctor, Dr. Brent Davidson, did a magnificent job. For the first time since third grade I can see extremely well without glasses. To me, it’s a miracle.

And then I started thinking about the extraordinary amount of focus it must have taken Dr. Davidson to perfect his skills in order to do what he did for me. He had to choose which areas of medicine he was not going to focus on, and he had to choose which area he was going to focus on.

The same is true for you. You can’t do or be everything at a high level or a deep level. So what’s it going to be? Choose a topic that you really want to focus on.

In One Day Pay Attention for 1 – 4 Hours

My personal favorite psychologist, Dr. Anders Ericsson, used to say that world-class performers could sustain their focus for up to 4 hours a day while a novice performer could focus for about 1 hour a day.

Please don’t pressure yourself into thinking you need to be able to focus effectively for 8 – 10 hours a day. That is NOT realistic. However, what you can do in your 1 – 4 hours a day of really good concentration is pretty remarkable. Be sure to allow yourself to really pay attention for 1 – 4 hours a day on your particular subject. Rather than doing busy work for four days and concentrating for one day, I encourage you to consider carving out 1 – 4 hours each day to really focus on a particular topic or activity.

Pay Attention through the Duration of a Project

Losing focus is a real problem. And it can be a really, really costly problem.

So often people will start up a new project with a great deal of enthusiasm. It’s like sending a bowling ball down a lane. But before the ball knocks down any pins they send another project down the lane. And then another and another. None of the balls reach any of the pins because the focus keeps changing over and over.

It is crucially important that you sustain your focus all the way to the end of the project so the bowling ball actually knocks over the pins. If you choose to stop a project and focus on a different project, then that’s okay. But if all you do is keep adding more projects without ever ending any of the projects, then you are not being effective.

Live a Lifetime of Focus

If you truly want to make a remarkable impact in your lifetime, then sustain your focus year after year. This is much easier said than done. It’s tempting to focus, achieve success for a few years, and then just celebrate the rewards for the long haul. It’s much harder to sustain your focus day after day, week after week, and month after month for 25-30 years. But that’s where the really, really deep impact happens. And gosh it can be so worth it!

Book Recommendations

Over the past few months I’ve begun to dig deeper into the concept of sustaining focus. Along the way I’ve stepped into these books, and I would like to recommend pieces of them.

Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World, specifically Chapter 1, by Mark Williams and Danny Penman

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, specifically the Introduction and Chapters 1, 2, and 3, by Cal Newport

Humility is the New Smart: Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age, specifically the Introduction, and Chapters 3, 4, and 5, by Ed Hess and Katherine Ludwig

Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, specifically the Introduction and Chapter 4, by Winifred Gallagher

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at dan@thecoughlincompany.com with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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