The Power of Focus!
by Stephen Doherty
October 30th, 2022
“The successful warrior is the average man,
with laser-like focus!” –Bruce Lee
Once upon a time, multi-tasking was akin to a superpower in the world of business and academia – and life in general. Like a circus juggler, we would see people seemingly engaged in multiple tasks on various fronts covering a vast array of projects and endeavors. Multi-tasking was an admired – and necessary skill in a rapidly changing world.
Common sense tells us that the ability to handle multiple “things” is an inherently necessary and useful skill. But a wise man once said of multi-tasking, “Multi-tasking divides your attention and leads to confusion and weakened focus.” I have come to the conclusion that multi-tasking is too often born of the IN-ability to resist distraction and stay focused on a single task.
Recently, I have become an ardent fan of Cal Newport, the author of several books on productivity. His big seller was, “Deep Work.” I rarely read books twice but I just finshed my second reading of this hugely important writing. He makes the compelling argument that in our current world of almost infinite distractions – most arising from the internet – we have become epically busy while simultaneously experiencing greatly diminished productivity. Email is the primary culprit but none of us lack for a dozen other perpetual interruptions to our day under the guise of “busy-ness.”
I have become convinced that heightened productivity and elevated creativity and achievement requires an intensity of focus most of us have long ago abandoned – if we ever had it. I am trying to train myself to block/wall off time to do the opposite of multi-tasking and focus on one thing only for one-hour – baby steps.
It is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. While I consider myself competent, intelligent, and driven – I was shocked to discover the degree of distraction and dissipation of effort still eroded by the Siren’s call of email or internet dings from my cell phone alerting me that (fill-in-the-blank) was beckoning. Cal Newport was right when he cautioned, “Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.” A dependance on distraction. Let that sink in because it is at the root of most of our challenges around getting important things completed.
Focused effort is nothing more than an acquired habit and as Aristotle famously said of habits, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” I continue to block-off hours on my calendar – which is the easy part – to focus intensely on a single project and purpose. Just as much effort goes into working diligently (and creatively) to eliminate distractions. I finally got up the nerve to shut off my cell phone for 1-2 hours, and have disciplined myself to shut down my email during these sessions of focused work as well as boycotting any internet distractions.
The results have been phenomenal from a productivity standpoint. Truly, two hours of highly focused work can produce more tangible achievements than eight hours of “busy” work where the metric too often becomes the effort, and not the outcome. An unanticipated benefit of this effort is the “creation of time” to do other things. So often, we don’t run out of time – we just misuse it. Most of us are capable of this intensely focused effort but utilize it only when we are absolutely forced to by urgency or deadline.
We all know people who had an innate talent for focusing and staying on task in pursuit of targeted goals. I always admired these people because they seemed to cruise to a level of profound achievement and productivity with seemingly minimal effort. Truth be told – they simply learned early to resist the irresistible temptation to daydream or become distracted. They inherently embraced the notion that less mental clutter meant more mental resources available for deep thinking and total immersion in a single pursuit. They had learned how to enter (and exit) the confines of Deep Work.
Whether you’re at the beginning or the end of your career, the benefits of targeted focus ensure not only heightened productivity, but sharper minds born of heightened intellectual rigor. History’s success stories were written by high-performing individuals able to focus and stay on task. A wise man once said, “With a flashlight, you can find your shoes under the bed. With a laser – you can write your name on the moon!”
“In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.” –Cal Newport