Could Focus Be What’s Holding You Back at Work?

This curated column is authored by Blake Irving, CEO, GoDaddy

Having a Growth Mindset

I’ve been thinking about the growth mindset—particularly as it relates to the developers and data scientists at GoDaddy who are building the next generation of our products.  A growth mindset, at its essence, is the personal power to believe that you can improve at whatever you set out to do. I first heard the idea posited by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, in her 2014 TED Talk and it’s stuck with me.  What she found is that, while we all know we can study, practice and learn, many people tend to believe that their total capacity in any one area is fixed near its current state. Carol calls this a “fixed mindset.” I think it’s really easy to slip into that mindset, even for those who ambitiously go after their goals.

As I think about my goals for this year, they’re not limited to tasks I want to achieve. I also want to set goals on how I grow and get better at achieving what’s most important to me. I don’t think there’s any stage of life where personal growth isn’t important.  Regardless of what you’ve achieved so far in your career, there is always room to grow—in your technical aptitude, your leadership skills, in your maturity, your wisdom and in your personal life. This year I’ve decided to focus on focus itself (yes, it’s very meta.)

The Unspoken Virtue of Focus

The ability to set one’s mind to a task or problem and stick with it is a valuable personal trait. I’ve always thought of my ability to focus as a mostly natural skill—more nature than nurture.  But the fact that I’ve considered it a natural skill now leads me to suspect that I’ve approached it with a fixed mindset. When I compare my focus to that required of F1 champion driver Lewis Hamilton, alpine skiing champ Ted Ligety or US Open champ Jordan Spieth, I must be in the minor leagues. In F1 alone, the focused mental discipline to take and hold a lead at for 190 miles (at an average speed of 115 mph) must be astronomical.

Imagine what we could achieve in the tech industry if we applied the same type of focus to our work that pro athletes do—even for just some of the time. The trouble, of course, is that 10 hours sitting at a desk is very different than 90 intense seconds of an Olympic Super-G run at Sochi or even a four hour golf tournament.  But what we’re working to achieve in business is every bit as important as any sporting event, and we owe it to ourselves to master the skills of the pros and apply them to our initiatives.

“Who wouldn’t love to spend their days in a Shangri-La-esque office overlooking a babbling brook.”

Why Conventional Workplace Wisdom on Focus Fails

When it comes to focusing at the office, conventional wisdom offers three common (and frustrating) pieces of advice: create a harmonious environment, simplify your goals and eliminate distractions. In my experiences, none of these are particularly realistic because they require that I change the environment around me.

Who wouldn’t love to spend their days in a Shangri-La-esque office overlooking a babbling brook; free of noise, clutter, and interruptions of any kind. It would be a great place to concentrate with the smooth sounds of the ‘Deep Focus’ Spotify station humming in the background. But it would also be a place where you’d quickly become disconnected from your peers and the people you need to connect with every day. My work environment can be chaotic and I bet yours can be too. The reality is that for me to do my most important work, I need to be in the thick of things, not sequestered. I try to keep my door open at work so everyone on the campus knows that I’m available to them. I take having an “open door policy” quite literally. That part of my work environment works too. Though my day is tightly scheduled, serendipitous meetups often end up being the most valuable.

Simplifying my goals is no more realistic than moving my office to the mountains. The bulk of what I want to achieve this year is anything but simple. At GoDaddy, we’re working to drive a radical shift in the global economy toward small business by delivering a set of powerful yet elegantly simple cloud-based tools that help entrepreneurs get started and become successful (however they define success.) Success in this goal goes far beyond financial rewards for me. There is strong evidence that computerized automation will replace one out of every two jobs in the western world in the next 20 years. The world will need more creative, industrious entrepreneurs than it ever has in the past, and we’re working to be at the spearhead of that effort. Though I can parse and shard the goal into 1,000 parts, the goal itself doesn’t get any simpler.

The same goes for eliminating distractions. Things move quickly in tech and “unplugging” would cause chaos in my day. It would also be downright frustrating for those that depend on reaching me to have to wait until some undetermined future time for me to respond. Whether we like it or not, we live in a connected world and the price of disconnecting is higher than most of us are willing to pay. If I’m really going to grow in my ability to focus this year, I’m going to have to look outside of conventional wisdom.

Taking a Page from Pro Athletes

If I can’t substantially change my environment to improve focus, I’m left with changing myself. Consider pro athletes. They too have little control over their environment; having to apply their focus in inclement weather, amid noisy crowds and often in locations where workplace focus would be considered impossible. If I’m going to grow in my ability to focus this year I’ll need to take a page from their book and train my focusing muscles with mental endurance, mental toughness and mindfulness training.

Pick a System and Stick with It

My first step will be to get serious about a prioritization technique that works in dynamic environments. The good news here is that I don’t need to start from scratch—there are dozens of methods and techniques to help with productivity already well reasoned. Tools like the Action Method, the Pomodoro Technique, Big Rocks, or the Get Things Done approach by David Allen all have their uses and strong points. Since I’m not in a good position to eliminate distractions or squelch the influx of data coming at me, I think the best tool to for me is the Eisenhower Matrix.

The Eisenhower Matrix is named after the 34th president of United States, Dwight Eisenhower, who was known to use the system himself.  Eisenhower is credited with saying, “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” with the rare exception, I can relate.

For me, the value of the Eisenhower system is twofold. First, it allows the user to quickly make a decision about any particular task.  If it’s not urgent enough to do immediately, they’re prompted to slate a time to get it done. You’ll never be in an interruption free environment, but making decisions quickly on when to do the work (vs starting that new task immediately) lets you get back to your previous task and refocus. Second, the system helps with balance. It’s easy for urgent tasks to always trump the important but not urgent ones—like relationships, planning and mental downtime. This year I’m adding rigor in my use of the Eisenhower Matrix to see if it ups my game.

“Mental Endurance, Toughness and Mindfulness—my core hypothesis for enhancing focus”

A Hypothesis for Enhancing Focus

I can’t claim that I have all the answers when it comes to better focus, but I can tell you the six things I’ll be working on this year to see if they help me extend and deepen the reach of my focus:

Gamifying Mental Endurance – Applying a growth mindset to my focus means believing that my focus can be sustained for longer and longer periods with practice. When I sent my mind to difficult task this year, I’ll be noting the time and I’ll work to extend those session by 5 or 10 minutes each time; keeping track of my progress as I go.

Adding Granularity – To help me stick to tasks longer, I’ll spend the first minute or two of the task outlining the steps; effectively breaking down the task into small, more digestible bites. This not only lets me have small successes along the way, it also helps me to recover from distractions more rapidly; an added bonus.

Mental Toughness – In Lars Draeger’s Navy Seal Training Guide: Mental Toughness he discusses what the Seals call “front-sight focus,” which is the ability to visualize your goal so clearly that you begin to feel that reaching the goal is the only possible outcome. Sustaining your passion and conviction is one of the toughest aspects of multi-year projects. To do it at a pro level, it takes exceptional mental toughness that can only come from pushing through unfocused periods. For me, that means harnessing what motivates me to action: my customers and their stories. If I need a little boost, I’ll take a 90 second break and re-watch our manifesto and I’m fired back up again.

Mindfulness – The act of mindfulness is “a state of active, open attention on the present.” When it comes to focus, being aware of your brain-state and distracting thoughts can be the difference between successfully focusing and time-wasting diversion. I think this can differ for everyone, but for me the first step is to anticipate and observe excuses that keep me from applying my focus. It’s easy to let fear of failure, embarrassment or simple uncertainty to creep into your thoughts. As soon as you’re mindful of those thoughts, it’s easy to shelve them away.  If you’ve never practiced mindfulness, a good place to start is the book “Search Inside Yourself,” by longtime Google engineer Chade-Meng Tan.

Nutrition and Exercise – If I’m really going to be pro about focusing this year, it means paying attention to my nutrition and fitness. It’s a no-brainer that focus will be hard if you’re sick or lethargic, but you might not realize how well you can focus right after a great workout and steam shower. Sustained energy must be a key factor in sustained focus, which means that caffeine and sugar should be used sparingly as they both lead to energy spikes and crashes. My goal is to simply drink more water instead.

Live Passionately – One of my favorite quotes is from Thomas Edison, where he writes, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” When you are as mission-obsessed as I am, it’s easy to start looking at sustaining a life outside of work as work itself. But for me to be on my best game during the week, I need to make time to be with people I love, be at the places I love, and doing the things I love outside of those work hours. This year I’m committed to living passionately in my pursuit of deeper focus—and hope you do too.

What Focus Techniques Work for You?

Disclaimer: This is a curated post. The statements, opinions and data contained in these publications are solely those of the individual authors and contributors and not of iamwire or its editor(s). This article was originally published by the author here.

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