When It Pays To Focus

How to Sharpen Your Focus and Maximize Your Results

Several years ago, I decided to play ALTA tennis. Not having an athletic background, this was a major step for me into the unknown. I loved the sport even though most of my exercise was chasing my errant balls. Playing on the 3rd team was not a problem for me.

A difficult and hard-fought match was on a gorgeous spring day. The temperature was 70 degrees and an occasional breeze cooled everyone off.

I had been working diligently on my technique for high overhead lobs and on this day, I was determined to succeed at hitting a good one. I got my chance. The lob was coming. I focused. I jumped and swung as hard as I could hoping to send it like a missile to the other side of net.

I missed it. More embarrassing, however, was when my entire team stood up and cheered. The score was 2 to 2 and I was playing the match point. I was standing at the baseline. Even though I jumped as high as I could, the ball sailed safely behind me to the fence. Because I missed the ball, we won the match.

Focusing on improving my high overhead lobs was a good idea if seeking to improve my play. Yet it was a micro-focus. If I had included a macro-focus on the entire team, perhaps I could have avoided this embarrassing moment.

The Question of Focus

Is it easy or hard for you to focus? Test yourself by focusing on an object on your desk, perhaps a picture, a lamp, or an award you have won. Set a timer and see how long it takes before your mind wanders. My mind races at mach speed and it takes about 10 seconds for me to lose focus. If you get the same results, we know that we both need to improve our concentration.

When you totally focus as I did in this tennis match, you block out everything around you: the score, the knowledge that this was match point and the ability to observe the ball was obviously headed out of bounds. All I had to do was nothing and we would win the match. I was oblivious to these truths. My mental focus was singular. I ignored all the noise around me.

In the tennis example, total focus did not serve me well. Total focus served Alexander Hamilton well in 1782.

The ROI of Focus

The amazing success of the Broadway musical “Hamilton” has turned a spotlight on Alexander Hamilton. Though orphaned as a child, he was a bright young man and a quick learner.

He became an assistant and trusted adviser to General George Washington in the Revolutionary War, was the major contributor to the Federalist papers, and served as the first secretary of the United States Treasury where he set up our banking system.

As a studious teenager, I read a book about Hamilton. The one memory I have from reading the book is that when he decided to study law and take the bar, he stayed in his room and focused only on his law books. He allowed no interruptions and insisted his food be slipped under the door. Because of his total focus, he completed his study of law and  passed the New York bar in only three months. I don’t remember the name of the book and cannot document the truth of this, but the principle of focus has merit. Passing the bar in a short amount of time was a remarkable achievement and a great return on his investment of time, illustrating the power of total focus in an important endeavor.

“Men give me credit for some genius. All the genius I have lies in this; when I have a subject in hand, I study it profoundly. Day and night it is before me. My mind becomes pervaded with it. Then the effort that I have made is what people are pleased to call the fruit of genius. It is the fruit of labor and thought.” 
Alexander Hamilton

Focus on Productivity

Just like Hamilton, there are times when total focus will serve you well. For instance, a frequent complaint I hear in my workshops is the inability to finish assigned tasks by the deadline. When I explore some of the reasons it is clear the individual is not setting up a productive environment for focus and concentration, in contrast to what Hamilton did.

To make great strides on conquering a complex task, you can’t lock yourself in a room and demand food be passed under the door to you, but you can take these steps:

  • Block out at least one hour in your calendar.
  • Eliminate all possibilities of interruptions. Silence your phone. Turn off email notifications. Tell others you are unavailable.
  • Make the task your singular focus – (like my focus on hitting my high overhead lobs).
  • When your mind wanders, and it will, quickly bring it back into focus.
  • Be mentally alert. Take your Ginkgo every morning and let your brain make the unbelievable connections it can make. Let it work up to its capacity.

When you are totally focused, you will find the time flies by and you feel a sense of satisfaction at the progress you have made on the task.  Now get up, walk around, hydrate, and rejuvenate your body.

Focus on People

In a leadership workshop, a woman told me that she gets huge amounts of work done by having her desk face the wall. A mirror hangs above her computer and when anyone comes to talk to her, her hands never leave her keyboard. She glances up in the mirror to see who it is and continues looking at her computer screen. This is how she carries on the business of the day and managers her employees.

This may work for simple questions that can be answered with “Yes” or “No” but in my opinion shows disrespect for colleagues and associates.

If you want to influence the other person,  show respect, and make them feel heard, the key is focus. Follow these guidelines:

    1. Shut out interruptions as mentioned above. Do not look at the computer screen and ignore the impulses to check email, IMs or texts. Consider putting your phone on vibrate or for high level discussions, turn it off.
    2. Focus only on the individual and your conversation.
    3. Use engaging body language. Look them in the eye, lean toward them, and smile.
    4. Listen intently to what they are saying.
    5. Avoid interrupting them.
    6. Give thought to your comments rather than uttering the first thing that enters your mind.
    7. Make supportive statements and find common ground in your combined thoughts.

Focus is Energizing

To me, focus is energizing and rewarding. I feel great satisfaction when my mind has been alert, I have had insights, answered questions, and solved problems. Not only does significant work get done, but my self-esteem is preserved in an often chaotic environment.

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