Essential focusing disciplines to think, create and lead
Joshua Ehrlich, Ph.D.
All of us are Zooming. We are running around faster and faster as technology shreds our attention. We desperately need to Zoom in—take back control by learning to stop, reflect and focus. The discipline of paying attention enables us to remain effective while helping our clients accelerate their development. I have developed a roadmap of how and where to focus to learn critical leadership skills, and suggest how reflection, focus and mindfulness can be powerful tools for coaching leaders in this environment.
Here is how a senior executive client described her day:
I just returned from vacation (which felt more like a flexible work arrangement given how often I looked at my handheld) and have already been on seven calls/meetings today beginning at 7:30am, did email in between (and some during), ran to the airport, edited two presentation decks, took a call before the first flight, left three voicemails, read an article about HR best practices while I ate bad Mexican food, took another call, typed while walking on the moving sidewalk, about to board the next flight and still have to prep tonight for my 7:00am meeting.
If this sounds familiar you are in good company. At home and at work we never stop. Everyone around us is also racing to get more, faster and better, so we naturally become entrained to their accelerating rhythm. If we are honest, we know that we are so busy we have trouble listening and we are restless, scattered and distracted. Without the ability to focus our attention and step back from the action we make poor decisions and do not learn. The cost to US businesses of fractured attention and unnecessary interruptions is estimated to be $650 Billion, according to technology research firm Basex.
We live in an age that requires us to manage information, and there is a flood of it coming from all sides. With personal and handheld computers, we can choose when, how and where we work. But we have less control of when, how and where we can think without interruption. The same technology that enables us to be more productive also undermines our ability to focus. To manage information we need to manage ourselves and take control of our attention.
Continual multitasking seems essential. However, we overestimate our ability to multitask effectively and underestimate its negative impact on our ability to concentrate. Multitasking may be needed in some individual contributor roles that require quick and efficient transactions. If you are a bus driver, waiter or trader, you need to continually be watching for new information while solving problems and simultaneously executing a number of tasks. But if you are a professional or leader you need to think ahead, facilitate and monitor progress towards goals.
“Often, I consciously make myself slow down, take a few minutes and carefully consider what I'm trying to accomplish, why and how I've gone about it so far. Reflecting enables me to see what has been done well, but also what opportunities were missed or could have been expanded. I also ask if I took the team along with me toward the vision and if they have a shared sense of satisfaction. Reflection inevitably improves communication with my team, senior executives and outside stakeholders. Improved communication and understanding increases our chances for success.”
Wanda Lyle, Managing Director, Merrill Lynch Global Wealth Management
Spiritual traditions have developed the mental disciplines of critical reflection and focus for centuries. Techniques for cultivating concentration and contemplation are central to the mystical teachings of Judaism, Hinduism, Shamanism, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity. Buddhism describes techniques to develop mindfulness, a state of present-focused awareness, open-mindedness and acceptance. Mindfulness is based on three useful components: selective attention (focusing where we want), sustained attention (focusing as long as we want), and attention switching (changing focus when we want).
Studies show that techniques to develop mindfulness enhance a range of positive emotions, emotional stability and our ability to read social cues. In addition, mindfulness training increases immunological functioning and life expectancy, and reduces depression and chronic pain. However, we are just starting to appreciate the power reflection and mindfulness have to facilitate learning. Recent research, for example by Ellen Langer at Harvard, suggests that individuals who apply reflection and mindfulness are able to learn more quickly, problem-solve more creatively, and extrapolate their learning more flexibly across settings. There are obviously tremendous potential benefits for leaders given the demands on their attention.
The disciplines of critical reflection and focus are fundamental to developing self-awareness, which is the starting point for developing all leadership competencies. Learning everything from communication and emotional intelligence to strategic thinking and team building depend on our ability to examine our behavior and focus our attention. These disciplines also enable us to become more aware of our core values and assumptions and think with greater clarity. We can then align our actions with our values, make conscious choices and lead with greater integrity and purpose.
The Fundamentals of Reflection and Focus:
Critical reflection is the act of stopping to look at ourselves. It does not mean being self-critical. Rather, it means objectively examining our thoughts, underlying assumptions and behavior. Focused attention is choosing where and how to look. Where and how imply scope (narrow or wide attention), timing (past or present) and attitude (critical or accepting). Reflecting and focusing our attention need not take much time. With practice these become easier, and we can choose to focus narrowly (e.g., on one particular person in front of us) or widely (on a team’s nonverbal signals at a meeting) depending on the situation. The mindfulness tradition adds the importance of an open-minded, accepting attitude.
Exercise: Monitoring attention and reflection
The first step is to become aware of your attention and what sustains it. Begin by keeping track of:
- The ebb and flow of your ability to focus
- What kinds of things hook your attention
- How often you step back from the action to reflect
Record observations at the end of the day regarding what helped and hindered your focus.
Leaders generally find their focus wanes over the course of the day, and that they spend almost no time dedicated to reflection. Rather, most of their time is spent interacting or transacting. Conversations with colleagues, coaches, mentors and friends can offer invaluable insights (see Leveraging others below). Indeed, reflection can be empty without input and feedback from others. However, such interactive reflection is not a substitute for thinking on our own. We also need to ask ourselves what we are running from. Many executives acknowledge intentionally staying distracted because of the fear of what they will find if they stop moving.
Exercise: Mindful breathing
- Your breathing is a built in stress barometer and focusing tool. Take a minute and just watch your breathing. Notice your stomach rising and falling as you follow your breath all the way in and all the way out. See if your breathing slows and your muscles relax without any added effort. Notice if your mind begins to clear. Observe your attitude towards yourself. Try to replace self-criticism with welcoming and curiosity.
- Next time the phone rings become aware of how your breathing quickens. Email notices and phone calls trigger a fight-or-flight stress response—increased heart rate, blood pressure spike and shallow respiration. We can reprogram this trigger into a relaxation response. Next time the phone rings, stop what you are doing and turn away from your computer. On the second ring, take a breath. On the third ring, smile—notice the affect on your attitude. Now pick up the phone.
Strategic and Innovative Thinking:
Once we can self-monitor and breathe mindfully, we open up the possibility of strategic and innovative thinking. Strategic thinking is the ability to see the big picture, collect information from multiple sources and envision the future. Rather than simply pursuing increased efficiency and productivity, innovative thinking changes the game and creates value beyond what is already here.
Leaders need to not only manage their own attention, but capture others' attention. An inspiring vision attracts us and aligns our energy. It creates an energizing set of ideals and taps into our needs, hopes and dreams.
"One of the chief imperatives of leadership is to have vision. Vision requires a deep understanding of the business but is inspired by out of the box thinking and imagination. Leaders need to make the time to reflect in peace to let their vision come together."
Ramesh Singh, former Managing Director, UBS Investment Bank
The rush of tasks and transactions we face (and take on) each day is the biggest obstacle to strategic thinking (think back-to-back meetings and never-ending email). We need to break our attention away from what is in front of us in order to look ahead and anticipate. Anticipation means predicting the potential consequences of our actions, our impact on others and changes in the business environment.
Exercise: Stopping the action
Our minds need regular rest and reflection. Vacations (from the Latin Vacare, to empty) are times to put out our mind's garbage so we can replenish. By temporarily putting aside our daily challenges and allowing ourselves to daydream we are able to discover new ideas:
- Stop the action at least once a day and ask two questions: 'What am I focused on?' and 'What am I learning?’ Keep a journal of your answers and look for patterns in your learning.
- Make time each week for something creative or nurturing (e.g., take an art class, visit a museum, go to a concert or take a walk).
- Schedule a week or more vacation each quarter (or as close to this as your employer allows) and make sure not to fill it with constant activity. Decide how often you need to check your office voice mail/email and communicate that decision to your colleagues.
- Notice how stopping the action positively affects your focus, mood and energy.
Exercise: Leveraging others
We need to ask for help making time to think and taking tasks off our plate:
- Assistants. If you have (or can get) an assistant, ask his help making space between meetings and clearing time for you to prepare for important conversations.
- Delegate. Give away tasks that bog you down. Acknowledge that control feels safer and let go of the belief that no one can do it as well as you.
- hinking partners. Ask colleagues and friends to be your thinking partner. Explain that their job is not to tell you what to do, but to listen and ask questions to help you think through issues. Make this a regular habit and offer to return the favor.
- Coaches, mentors and feedback. Contract with a select group of trusted advisors you can trust to give you feedback and counsel. Make sure to leverage individuals with diverse backgrounds and thinking styles so you get multiple perspectives. Mentors provide invaluable insider knowledge of companies, industries and fields. Coaches offer outsider objectivity and expertise on learning new behaviors and leadership skills. Because it is so hard to see our own behavior clearly, we need objective feedback for our reflection to create accurate self-awareness.
“As a senior executive my time is no longer my own, yet I desperately need time to think. I get my assistant to schedule thinking time and then protect it. I also ask my colleagues to be thinking partners, because as an extravert, I talk to think and synthesize better out loud. It’s about being disciplined and creating choice. We have choice if we exercise it.”
SVP Human Resources, International Technology Firm
Values, Purpose and Alignment:
In order to organize our experience we adopt perspectives and belief systems. These generally operate outside our awareness, and without attention, can become inflexible. Experimenting with different perspectives facilitates strategic insight and is also key to effectively negotiating and influencing.
Articulating our values and purpose helps clarify our own perspectives and align our thoughts and actions. The importance of values-centered leadership has been highlighted by the high-profile scandals of the past few years. Leaders face daily conflicts between organizational demands, client requests and the need to protect one’s own job/income, making reflection on these tensions essential.
Exercise: Clarifying values
List all of the values that are important to you. Consider Autonomy, Power, Control, Structure, Integrity, Challenge, Nurturing, Family, Security, Balance, Wealth, Location, Culture, Personal Growth, Expertise and Recognition. Rank the list from the most to least important. Rate how you actually act rather than making it a wish list. What changes would you make in your rankings or in your behavior to align more closely with your values?
Exercise: Envisioning purpose
Considering your most important values, write a brief (one or two sentence) description of your purpose. What gives your life meaning? What do you want your life to have been about? What personal and professional legacy do you want to leave?
Jerry was the CFO of a division of a Fortune 500 manufacturing company. At 39 he was a rising star with lots of ambition, intellect and commitment. His boss, Mike, considered several stretch assignments but hesitated because of Jerry’s immaturity and lack of patience, focus and discipline. Mike asked me to coach Jerry to become more aware of his impact and to develop his ability to think strategically and build relationships with a broad set of constituents. There was also a concern about burn out. While Jerry had prodigious energy, he never said ‘no,’ worked all hours of the day and night, and seldom took any time off.
Jerry needed to learn to focus, self-monitor and stop the action. His day was filled with meetings and then he worked all night to catch up on the accumulated follow-up tasks. He allowed his people to delegate upward. They asked him to make decisions for them and solve their problems. We discussed his values and he wrote: “My highest priorities are cultivating deep relationships with my team and protecting my thinking time.” To do this he realized he would need to set limits—on distractions, interruptions, and with his people.
Jerry was a very nice guy. Too nice. The implication of his priorities was that he would need to be more ruthless (without being nasty). He started practicing saying ‘no’ to people, which was at first very difficult, but ultimately grew his team’s ability to make decisions for themselves. Saying ‘no’ also meant not accepting meeting invitations when he was not really needed. If he was meeting with someone, they needed to be the most important person at that moment. Phone calls could wait. If he was on the phone with someone, he would not look at emails. They could wait. Having this clear hierarchy of priorities ensured he stayed present and maintained the clarity of his thinking.
Having more time to think and prepare helped Jerry become more analytical and disciplined. Preparation also helped him reign in his enthusiasm and negotiate and influence more objectively. He learned to tune in to interpersonal cues and gauge his impact. Tuning in to his gut helped him know when he needed a break and when to stop working. Jerry started the ritual of taking a long weekend once a month, and then added a full week off twice a year.
Once Jerry felt he had his team and volume of work under control he was ready to start focusing outward. He targeted a set of seven key constituents and actively worked to build greater trust, mutual support and value added. Reflection on the market helped him articulate a vision, and reflection on his purpose helped him clarify his career goals. After 18 months Mike promoted Jerry, and he is now the heading up a successful start-up business for the company.
The BeamPines/Middlesex University Master’s Degree Program in Executive Coaching teaches reflective learning and work-based research to graduate students and internal coaches. The goal is to set a higher bar for training and create a solid foundation for evidenced-based coaching. Jan Fleming, a graduate of the program, studied coaching outcomes for 30 clients of six program faculty. Her data suggest the impact of reflective coaching is strongest on measures of clients’ emotional intelligence, specifically self-awareness, social skills and self-regulation. The findings also shed light on who gets the most benefit from coaching (i.e., who is most coachable). Clients who started coaching with more positive attitudes and feelings got higher ratings after the coaching on a variety of behavioral scales.
Zooming into focus is a tremendous challenge. The fundamental exercises are not hard to integrate into our daily routine but the skills take a lifetime to master. It takes great self-discipline to regularly ask whether our thoughts and actions are aligned with our values and purpose. In addition, the increasing pace of society and our technology work against us. However, once we get a sense of the power of critical reflection and mindfulness, in terms of learning, effectiveness, creativity and overall well-being, we see there is no higher priority. The payoff is priceless.
Joshua Ehrlich, Ph.D., is the Dean of the BeamPines/Middlesex University Master’s Program in Executive Coaching. Josh advises CEOs and senior leaders on complex organizational challenges. He is an executive coach, supervisor and accreditor of coaches. Josh speaks to a variety of audiences about international coaching standards and brings together coaches from around the world to teach best practices. His research at Yale and New York University and numerous articles have clarified the psychological and physiological mechanisms by which stress impairs effectiveness.
Josh will be leading a Metro-sponsored workshop on focus and reflection June 17th. The workshop draws additional exercises from Josh’s upcoming book, Zooming, due out this Spring from Wharton Business School Press.