Let’s start with something counterintuitive: Everyone says you “need to learn to focus,” or “need to master the art of concertation.” The scientific reality, however, is you can’t “laser focus” on anything.
It’s not something humans – or monkeys – are able to do, according to research done by scientists from Princeton University and the University of California, Berkeley – findings that were published in Neuron. Instead of a laser, a better analogy for focus might be a spotlight, “that continually dims and comes back on again.” The wired magazine put it this way, “while it may seem that you are continuously focusing on reading this article, the reality is that you’re zooming in and out of attention up to four times per second.”
The brain is very good at deception and you feel convinced you’re giving something, “your full attention.” But the fact is that our brains are limited in what they can “zoom in on” and for how long. Distractions are inevitable – and it’s nice to hear – often beneficial. A wandering brain can be a creative brain. So, if “total concentration and laser focus” are myths, what can a modern CEO do to succeed in a world transformed by recessions, plagues, automation, political instability, and more? Maybe it’s time to stop thinking so much about “focus” and give more thought to “prioritizing.”
You can make the world’s best “to-do” list, but new assignments will crop up, there are always last-minute changes, somehow every meeting is “urgent.” What does it mean to prioritize tasks? What happens when everything is important? This state of stalemate is a common problem and stems from the inability to clearly prioritize.
That said, it’s not like you’re going to get much done if you’re scrolling through social media, watching a YouTube video, and chatting on the phone while writing an email and trying to finish a report. There is some common sense required and blocking out distractions is obviously a wise choice for anyone trying to complete a task.
Many are finding blocking all digital distractions by using a “blocking app” that syncs across devices is the easiest way to resist the urge to jump over to Twitter to see what Elon Musk has to say about Dogecoin today. By adding Twitter to the “blocked” list from say 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., should your willpower falter, you’ll get a message telling you the site is blocked and to “get back to work!”
But even with every digital distraction blocked, your brain can still be its own worse enemy. There is an app to block social media, gambling sites, “adult” entertainment, and more, but as of now, no app to stop your mind from doing what it evolved to do: wander between this and that, in and out of attention many times per second.
This is why prioritizing needs to be a well-honed skill. Learning to properly prioritize starts off with editing your “to-do” list. Ask yourself three questions.
- Are there consequences if (item X on the list) is not finished on time? For example, if a report has to be filed by the next afternoon or you incur a financial penalty, this is clearly a task that needs to be attended to immediately.
- Is “item X” a crucial priority, but there is no pressing deadline? An example might be a meeting with department heads that needs to happen but can be done after filing the report. Move this meeting to the number two slot on your to-do list.
- Are there are no consequences if “item X” is not completed? An example might be digitizing company records – an important thing to do, but it moves to number three on the list.
The so-called “Eisenhower Method,” which actually evolved out of a 1954 speech by the former president who quoted the president of Northwestern University Dr. J. Roscoe Miller, divides work into four groups:
- Critical and Urgent
- Critical, but Not Urgent
- Not Critical, But Urgent
- Neither Critical nor Urgent
The methods above may seem simplistic to some who do some version of exactly that every day. Things get more complicated, however, when two items both fall into the “there are consequences – must be done immediately” category or when two or more items are deemed “critical and urgent.” When this happens, it’s time for sub-prioritizing.
For example: Can you do the thing that’s urgent right now? Without assistance? And from where you are at the time? -Then it moves to the top of the pile. Don’t forget to remain flexible. Even if you are knee-deep in an important task, should a great opportunity to get a ‘B’ or ‘C’ task done suddenly arise; grab it. Golden opportunities are called “golden” as they are – like the metal – rare and valuable. Squandering one is foolish. Finally, there is no glory in working hard for its own sake. The cliché is true “Work Smart, Not Hard.” Proper prioritizing – alongside minimizing distractions – can help you do just that.