Franklin Roosevelt became convinced that people were so excited to meet him in person that they didn’t pay attention to what he actually said. So, he tried an experiment. As he greeted people during a White House reception, he smiled and told each of them quietly, “I murdered my grandmother yesterday afternoon.” As he suspected, everyone in line responded with something like, “That’s great, Mr. President,” or “I’m glad to hear it, Mr. President.” This happened, until the last person in line, the ambassador from Bolivia. The ambassador hesitated and then whispered back, “Well sir, she must have deserved it.”
How often do we greet people with “How are you?” and have no expectation of a response other than “fine?” In fact, we’re surprised when the other person actually gives an honest answer. While this may be seem harmless, behavior like this begins to infect more meaningful conversations as well. Have you ever gotten so used to listening to the boss, for instance, that you no longer pay attention?
Have you ever made a mistake because you didn’t listen for all the details of the assignment? With the hundreds of distractions bombarding us every day, we become overwhelmed. Real concentration on anything now seems to come at a premium. We try to attend to important issues. But this attention is being constantly reset because of electronic distractions, constant music and news and the impatience we’ve all developed. Then there’s FOMO, or the Fear Of Missing Out, that compels us to check our smart phones 40 and 80 times a day, depending upon age.
The result is our inability to focus very long on the problems that really count. Yes, you have to make a decision on filling that vacant position or resolving that customer service issue. But all the little tasks need to be completed as well. It’s just easier to do those. So, what do you do? Here are three strategies that I’ve seen high achievers use:
Train your brain – The best thinkers know there’s no such thing as multi-tasking. Rather, they’ve learned to focus intently on the task at hand. They read deeply outside of the everyday business documents to improve their critical thinking. They debate with others to sharpen listening and persuasion skills. They take up hobbies that require concentration and creativity.
De-clutter – Look at the screen of a high achiever and you’ll notice a lack of clutter. They develop systems for organizing files and essential documents. They take a bit of time every day to “clear the chaos.” They’re huge fans of concise reports and proposals. If an idea comes to mind while focused on another task, they jot it down without breaking concentration. They focus on the essentials, rather than be distracted by irrelevant chat and nonsense.
Compartmentalize – High achievers organize their days and then remain on task. Don’t expect them to respond immediately. They usually clear e-mails two or three specific times a day. Ask if they’ve got a couple of minutes and they’ll diplomatically set a time that works into their schedule. That doesn’t mean they’re inflexible. They’ve just developed systems that permit them to focus on one task at a time, thereby improving listening and concentration.
Of course, these strategies don’t succeed without the self-discipline to develop good habits of mind. What can you do in the next week to adopt these tactics?