The best leaders focus on what matters most

The best leaders focus on what matters most – here’s how

Focus. It’s the key that unlocks both productivity and well-being. Most leaders know this, so why do so many of them struggle to stay focused?  Focus isn’t easy to achieve, especially in today’s fast-paced and complex world. There are so many demands, opportunities, and challenges pulling us in different directions, it’s easy to lose sight of what matters most.  The truth is that most leaders were never taught to focus themselves. Because of that, it’s not a part of their practice. To create a culture of focus, leaders must first learn to focus their own attention. Here’s how the best leaders do it.

The myths of multitasking

Most multitaskers believe that to be productive, they need to multitask – constantly jumping from one thing to another. Neuroscience research shows that multitasking actually creates the opposite effect. When you do multiple things at the same time, you don’t do any of them well. For example, when you look at your phone or email during a meeting, your attention is not with the other person or people in the room. There is no real contact.  Your mind is not built to do two things at once. To focus your mind on one thing takes a lot of energy. So when your mind is constantly shifting from one to the other thing, it’s drawing on different neural pathways and zapping your energy. Many leaders multitask due to the Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO). That’s why they try to do multiple things at once. They are distracted, not fully present and not focused on the people and issues in front of them, since they are thinking of what to do next (or something more exciting). Follow-through, productivity, happiness, and relationships all suffer.

How to choose your focus

What do you want to focus on in life? What do you want to focus on at work? When you know what really matters in your life and work, you know what you want to concentrate on. But choosing what’s most important isn’t straightforward (otherwise we’d all be doing it with no problems). As an executive coach, I use the following strategies to help people find their focus:You might ask yourself what you’d do if you only had one more day to live. What would you do if you only had 3 more days or 3 more weeks left to live? You could try setting Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound (SMART) goals aligned with your vision and values.When you choose where to direct your energy one thing at a time, you are more effective and feel less frenzied and are more present. This helps you to be and perform at your best. Here’s a good analogy. Imagine you have one cup of energy per day. If you share it with 20 people, they get more energy per person than if you choose to share it with 100 people.

Switching from distracted to focused

Many leaders practice the opposite of focusing; they practice being distracted every day –  most of the day! Getting better at focusing on one thing and letting go of distractions – including negative thoughts and emotions – takes practice. For many people, modern life is a constant stream of distractions –  Internet, email, phone calls, social media – the list goes on. If you regularly practice getting distracted, guess what? You get better at being distracted, you become less focused, and feel more restless. Restlessness is a saboteur –  negative thoughts and emotions that mess with you and your focus on what matters most to you. It’s good to recognize which negative emotions are a sign of your ‘restless saboteur’ so that you can intercept restlessness, and recover faster from distracted to focused.Some helpful questions to ask are:

  • Am I restless and impatient with what I am doing? 
  • Do I lack focus and feel scattered? 
  • Do I feel anxious with a sense of chaos instead of feeling calm and peace? 
  • Am I bored or dissatisfied with the main activities in your life?

How the best leaders stay focused  

Like any skill, focus takes practice. So what do the best leaders do to stay focussed? As an executive coach, here are my top tips. Think of it like a workout, except it’s for your brain instead of your body:

  • Start your day by focusing on one thing and let go of your thoughts. This is called a reset or a PQ rep. I like to start my day with a longer PQ rep of around 30 minutes in the morning.
  • During the day, practice focusing by doing mini-PQ reps. You can do them anywhere, in the shower, whilst exercising, brushing your teeth, or having a drink or bite. Start small, pick one, and when it becomes a habit, start doing them during another activity. 
  • Should you get hijacked by a ‘restless saboteur’, pay attention to the negative emotions you experience and label them. Say to yourself: here goes that restless saboteur again, and respond with PQ reps.
  • When those negative thoughts and feelings come back again, repeat the process. The more you practice focussing by doing PQ reps, the easier it gets. 

The best leaders and their teams are focused on what matters most because they realize that it’s the key to high performance, wellbeing, and healthy relationships. They also know that focus is not a fixed state, but a dynamic skill that requires constant practice and improvement. They’re always looking for ways to practice and sharpen their focus and help others do the same.What are some of the ways you stay focused as a leader? I would love to hear your thoughts and tips in the comments below.

Further reading:

  • Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain And Body by Daniel Goleman
  • Positive Intelligence: Why Only 20% Of Teams And Individuals Achieve Their True Potential And How You Achieve Yours by Shirzad Chamine