Focusing means giving something intense and complete attention. Observe anyone glued to a screen during the Super Bowl and you’ll see an excellent example of focus.

This is the kind of focus you, the executive, need to place on tasks and issues related to your business. Driving results for your business is like trying to burn a piece of paper with sunlight. Without focus, the paper will only get warm. But focus that sunlight through a magnifying glass and it will catch fire.

If you want your business to “catch fire” (in a good way), you must master the art of focusing attention.

How Executives Can Improve at Focusing Attention

1. Increase Your Ability to Gain and Maintain Focus and Attention

Executives need the ability to focus on a specific task or person without getting distracted, and to maintain that focus for as long as necessary. Unfortunately, many of us struggle with staying focused on what’s at hand. Our minds wander. This shows up as meandering meetings, indecisiveness, forgotten projects, and uncompleted tasks.

Dr. Daniel Goleman, an expert on focusing attention, at the World Economic Forum

Daniel Goleman in 2011. Image Credit: World Economic Forum [CC BY-SA].

Focusing attention takes intentional effort. In Psychology Today, Daniel Goleman, Ph. D., recommends a simple exercise for improving your ability to gain and maintain focus and attention. Just pay attention to your breathing without thinking about anything else. If you start thinking about something else, stop, and return your attention to your breathing.

This sounds easy. For most executives, though, it’s a tremendous challenge. We’ve trained our minds to work constantly on solving problems. It takes willpower to stop thinking about them for even a short time.

This works just like any other exercise: the more you do it, the easier it gets, and the stronger you become. Practice it often and you will find your focus gets sharper, clearer, and easier to maintain.

Gaining the Attention of Others

Gaining the attention and focus of others is a more complex art. Entrepreneur Ben Parr spent years researching this art, and published a summary of his findings in this Harvard Business Review article. Here are a few of his tips in brief:

  • Empathize with the people you’re speaking with and acknowledge their contributions and struggles. Work to match your message to their point of view—or change their point of view to match your message.
  • Trigger automatic reactions from your audience. An unexpected announcement in the middle of the workday gains more attention than one in a scheduled meeting. (Just be aware of the impact disruptions have on productivity, which we’ll discuss below.)
  • Provide clear rewards.
  • Create a sense of mystery. Here’s a simple example of how you can do this: “Team, I have a very important announcement. But first, I need to remind everyone about X.”

If you can focus your own attention and that of others, you’ll find that you and your team can move mountains.

2. Improve Sequential Thinking Skills

Anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end apartheid in South Africa.

Sequential thinking means breaking large tasks into small steps to complete them. As Desmond Tutu is credited with saying, “There is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.”

Arthur Whimby provides an excellent example of sequential thinking in an article for The Phi Delta Kappan,Teaching Sequential Thought: The Cognitive-Skills Approach.” The following question was posed to university students:

“What day follows the day before yesterday if two days from now will be Sunday?”

Whimby writes that “a significant percentage of the students” couldn’t find the solution. Can you? Think for a moment. Don’t scroll down until you have your answer.

To paraphrase Whimby, many people simply can’t divide the question in their head. Some treat it as one or two questions and try to answer it all at once. Others see that there are several questions but can’t figure out how to organize them.

A skilled sequential thinker, however, breaks it up and answers these questions one at a time:

  • If two days from now will be Sunday, what day is “now”? It would be Friday.
  • Now that I know that “now” is Friday, what day was yesterday? That would be Thursday.
  • What was the day before yesterday? Since yesterday was Thursday, the day before was Wednesday.
  • What day follows the day before yesterday? The day that follows Wednesday is Thursday.

So, the answer is Thursday.

Did you have the right answer? Or did you have trouble sorting out each step and jump to the wrong conclusion?

Sequential thinking skills are critical for tactical planning and execution.

Building a grand strategy lets you identify the goals you want to reach, but without sequential thinking, you will be unable to identify the steps needed to get there.

Working with word problems like the one above is an excellent way to improve your sequential thinking skills. An executive coach can also help you practice your sequential thinking and apply it directly to real-world business problems.

If you are a genuine CEO or senior executive, I would be happy to coach you on sequential thinking or any other skill critical to your success. Just click the link to schedule your first complimentary executive coaching consultation.

3. Decrease the Tendency to Become Distracted

A huge number of distractions exist in our executive world. Information bombards us at an incredible pace. A University of California at Irvine study found that the average worker is interrupted or switches tasks about once every three minutes. While managers tended to be better about staying focused on one task, they were interrupted even more frequently than other workers.

If you can’t deal with a flood of information, you can’t succeed at your job. You need a way to deflect distractions so you can stay focused.

How to stay focused:

  • Blocking alone time on the calendar with help from your executive assistant.
  • Setting up clear rules about when you can be called or emailed. For example, I have a simple rule for my employees: “Do not call me if we have not scheduled a call.”
  • Tasking your EA with sorting out which issues need your attention and which should be redirected to one of your direct reports.
  • Closing the office door—and setting clear rules about what a closed door means.
  • Putting your phone on “do not disturb” with rules to allow only urgent calls, messages and notifications through.
  • Working from home to get some quiet time.

A distracted and unfocused businessman with his mind going in many directions at once, struggling to clear his head

Priority management—which we will discuss in more depth as part of the Managing Time and Priorities competency—is a key part of this competency as well. If you can’t prioritize, you will succumb to the “tyranny of the urgent”—getting pulled away from what is “important and urgent,” to just “urgent,” to “not important and not urgent.”

We can’t allow non-critical tasks to distract us. Multitasking and interruptions from emails, social media, and phone calls impede our ability to focus. Some strategies to limit such distractions include:

  • Living by a calendar and ensuring it is only filled with high-priority meetings.
  • Assigning priority codes to all tasks.
  • Saying “no” (being assertive and declining meetings when not a priority).
  • Delegating.
  • Enlisting your EA to help with prioritizing.

4. Increase Self-Discipline for Staying on Task

Warren Buffett, a master of self-discipline, in 2005

Warren Buffett, investor, philanthropist, and 4th-wealthiest person in the world. Photo by Mark Hirschey [CC BY-SA].

As Warren Buffett said, “We don’t have to be smarter than the rest; we have to be more disciplined than the rest.”

The disciplined executive focuses on one task until it’s completely done before starting the next. Starting a number of different tasks, or multitasking, only creates confusion and drains brainpower. In fact, it can slash your productivity by 40%.

How do we strengthen our self-discipline in order to stay on task?

How can we avoid “chasing after rabbits” like a golden retriever?

Self-discipline involves having a rigorous methodology to control what we do and when. This means being less reactionary and more proactive. Instead of reacting in a knee-jerk manner, pause to think before acting.

A successful formula

A successful formula is “S to T to R,” or Stimulus to Thought to Response. Without strong enough self-discipline, we’re more likely to jump from Stimulus to Response, skipping over the critical Thought stage in between. This lets any unexpected change—an employee reporting a problem, an email from the board, etc.—drag us away from our current task and on to something different.

Using the “S to T to R” system, you would first pause to ask yourself if this was really worth abandoning your current task over. Is it so important and urgent that it can’t wait until you finish your current task? Is it worth a 40% loss in productivity to switch tasks now? You’ll be surprised how often the answer is no.

If you’re used to multitasking, you may find mono-tasking disheartening at first. Multitasking is like a drug. It’s both bad for you and addictive. It can give you a tremendous sense of accomplishment, but you’re really achieving half of what you could. And who wants to be “that boss” who thinks they’re achieving great things while visibly getting nothing done?

When you stay disciplined about completing one task at a time, you may not get that burst of dopamine or look as busy as other leaders. Your results, though, will speak for themselves.

Why Does Focusing Attention Matter?

If you are unable to focus, you will watch tasks fall through the cracks and deadlines fly past unmet. You will encounter disorganization and find yourself putting out fires rather than being proactive and forward-thinking.

Success depends on focusing attention on priorities rather than what’s urgent. This entails setting a standard for limiting distractions, maintaining focus, and demonstrating self-discipline. Do this and you will position yourself to achieve great results.

Developing This Strength

Developing this strength means taking an honest look at yourself. Ask yourself these hard questions:

  1. What stops me from focusing?
  2. What can I change to improve my ability to focus?
  3. Am I addicted to multitasking?
  4. What systems can I use to reduce distraction?
  5. How can I further develop my sequential thinking skills?

Then, you can strengthen your weak areas through further online research and reading relevant books, such as Your Brain at Work by David Rock, Deep Work by Cal Newport, and Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence by Daniel Goleman.

The fastest way to improve is to enlist an executive coach. A coach can help you identify your top priorities for improvement and achieve transformational change in the shortest time possible. We offer all genuine CEOs and senior executives three complimentary sessions of executive coaching, and you can take me up on that offer by clicking the link

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About This Competency

SOLID Execution competency highlighted in wheel diagramSOLID has identified 50 executive competencies critical to executive success. Focusing Attention falls under the category of Execution, one of 5 categories within the competency model, which is explained and downloadable below. Overall, executives are responsible for, and must be competent in:

E4. FOCUSING ATTENTION: Increasing ability to gain and maintain focus and attention; improving sequential thinking skills; decreasing tendency to become distracted; increasing self-discipline for remaining on task.

Our Competency Model

SOLID Executive Competencies ebook coverThe SOLID Competency Model is based on two decades of research. It is founded on the premise that all executive competencies can be categorized into these five groupings: Core Character, Execution, Relationship, Management and Leadership. Executives must master all five categories to achieve excellence in their roles. This model is useful for gauging and quantifying your skillset, understanding what it takes to be an effective executive, and providing a framework for improving performance. For more information, download “SOLID Executive Competencies: What It Takes to Be an Executive.”

Eliminate Executive Blind Spots ebookLooking constructively at yourself isn’t easy, but doing so provides the catalyst for transformational change. Having a balanced, objective look at your skillset and a willingness to be self-critical for the sake of continuous improvement is a major marker of a top executive. Take the next step and download “Eliminate Executive Blind Spots” to explore your strengths and weaknesses and remove any blind spots you may have.

About the Author

Daniel Joseph Mueller in Austin, Texas, at the ACL music festivalDaniel Joseph Mueller has been helping executives reach their full potential since 1987. A long-time executive coach, he has worked one-on-one with over 1,500 executives, helping them sharpen skills, uncover weaknesses and advance their careers. He serves as President & CEO of SOLIDleaders in addition to directing a Christian nonprofit, and lives in Austin, TX. Visit Daniel on LinkedIn or read his bio to learn more.