It is said that President Franklin Roosevelt became convinced that most people were so excited to meet him in person that they really didn’t pay attention to what he said. So he tried an experiment. As he greeted guests during a White House reception, he smiled and said to each of them quietly, “I murdered my grandmother yesterday afternoon.” As he suspected, everyone in the receiving line responded with something like, “That’s wonderful Mr. President,” or “I’m glad to hear it, Mr. President.” That is, until the last person in line, the ambassador from Bolivia. The ambassador, after greeting Roosevelt, hesitated and then whispered back, “Well sir, she must have deserved it.”
How often do you greet someone with “How are you?” and have no expectation of any response other than “fine?” In fact, most of us are surprised when the other person responds with personal details. While this may be seem innocuous, behavior like this tends to infect more substantial discussions as well. We get so used to listening to the boss, for instance, that we no longer pay attention.
Have you ever solved the wrong problem because you didn’t listen for all the details? That’s becoming increasingly common. With the hundreds of distractions that bombard us everyday, our brains are becoming overwhelmed. True concentration on anything now seems to come at a premium. We try to attend to the issues at hand. But this attention is being constantly reset because of electronic distractions, inescapable music and news and the natural impatience we’ve all developed. Then there’s FOMO, or the Fear Of Missing Out, that compels us to check our smart phones between 40 and 80 times a day, depending upon age.
The result is our inability to focus for more than a few seconds on the problems or questions that really count. Yes, you have to make a decision on hiring that new person or resolving that big customer service issue. But there are all these little tasks that need to be completed as well. It’s just easier to do those. Once they’re finished, you can focus. Except that they never seem to be finished.
So what do you do? Here are three proven strategies that high achievers use:
Train your brain – High achievers know there’s no such thing as multi-tasking. Instead, they’ve learned to focus intently on the task at hand. They read deeply outside of normal business documents to improve their creativity. They engage in discussions to sharpen listening and persuasion skills. They take up hobbies that require concentration and critical thinking.
De-clutter – Look at the desktop or home screen of a high achiever and you’ll notice a lack of clutter. They’ve developed systems for organizing files and essential documents. They set aside time a bit of time everyday to “clear the mess” that seems to gather endlessly. They’re big fans of concise reports and proposals. If a thought pops into their head while focused on another task, they’re quick to jot it down without breaking concentration. That way, they prevent it from lurking in the background as a distraction.
Compartmentalize – High achievers organize their days and then discipline themselves to stay on task. Don’t expect them to respond immediately. They generally clear e-mails two or three specific times during the day. Ask them if they’ve got a couple of minutes and they’ll diplomatically set a time that works into their schedule. This doesn’t mean they’re inflexible or set in their ways. They’ve just developed a system that allows them to focus on one task at a time, thereby improving their ability to listen and implement.
Of course, none of these strategies succeed without the self-discipline to develop the required habits of mind. That’s what prevents most people from achieving their goals. How about you?