I hear it from my coaching clients every day: The workplace is more competitive than ever, and there is no reprieve in sight. These smart, ambitious women tell me: “I am required to deliver more and more, faster and faster. I don’t have a moment to think.” And that, dear reader, is how women get stuck in middle management.
If you’re aiming to break through the glass ceiling, you have to make a moment (and more) to think. You need to commit to getting focused. Despite on-demand communications, 24/7 work cycles, and expanding workloads, successful executives know how to keep focused on what matters most. It’s their competitive edge.
How is it done?
First of all, give up the myth of multi-tasking. Thanks to twenty-first-century neuroscience, we know a lot more now about how the brain works. And the research shows that there is no such thing as “multi-tasking.” Our brain does not conduct its activities simultaneously. It works sequentially. When we think we’re multi-tasking, we’re actually zigzagging and backtracking between different tasks. While this may be okay for low-level admin tasks, this constant “switching,” it turns out, is terribly inefficient and even detrimental to higher-level, strategic thinking. It actually costs you extra time and diminished results.
Second of all, train your attention.
Attention is the earnest direction of your mind. It is, metaphorically speaking, how and when you “turn” your mind. It helps if you understand its three basic functions:
- Alerting is the awareness that helps us sense our environment by registering stimuli. (As in “email alert.”)
- Orienting is the focus that helps us respond to our environment by selecting information. (Just because a phone rings doesn’t mean you have to answer it; you choose to answer it.)
- The executive network directs the kind of judgment, planning, and big-picture thinking required by leaders. (What Stephen Covey categorizes as “important” rather than “urgent.”)
In general, our culture has become too adept at alerting, too timid at orienting, and too remote from the executive network. It’s easy to squander our most precious commodity, our “undivided attention,” on routine managerial tasks, rather than channeling it into the kind of creative problem-solving that distinguishes a top executive.
Think of your attentional training as pilates for the brain. Your goals are to:
- notice fewer stimuli
- respond more selectively
- spend more time in big-picture thinking
In other words, set aside the BlackBerry, design your take-action policies (how you will or won’t respond, under what circumstances), and schedule inviolable time for strategizing.
Bonus: Here are my top 10 tactics for working each day with more focused attention. They’ll help you to deliver higher-quality work product, increase your productivity, and prevent burnout. By focusing on what matters most, you’ll gain your competitive advantage:
- Re-commit to your goals. Itemize them, prioritize them, and write them down.
- Refuse interruptions. Sometimes they’re necessary; more often, they’re just a timesuck. Respond accordingly.
- Quit multi-tasking. Every time you “look away,” it’s harder to re-focus on the initial activity.
- Schedule everything. Take control: chunk similar activities and plan strategically, as much as you can.
- Write a “NOT to-do” list. Get ruthless about cutting out unnecessary or outworn habits.
- Do nothing for 15 minutes every day. Clear mind space for strategic reflection and visioning.
- Create explicit workplace processes that encourage big-picture thinking. Wean your work culture away from task-orientation and crisis-addiction.
- Mark boundaries. Create simple rituals that respectfully demarcate your workday from your personal life.
- Pick up a good book. Challenging fare, especially non-fiction, will hone your deep focusing skills.
- Declutter your workplace. Create a visual space that reflects and inspires a clear head.
© 2011 Ann Daly