Follow to Focus

In a 2019 article we talked about the tendency to be Anywhere But Here. Our attention is easily pulled away from the present. When we’re at work, we’re thinking about what we need to do when we get home. When we’re at home, we’re thinking about all the things we didn’t get done at work. When we’re at our kids’ sporting events, we’re thinking about what we will make for dinner when we get home instead of paying attention to the game. When we’re in line at the drive through waiting for our morning java, we’re checking our phone to see what we’re missing. This isn’t an affliction we can blame entirely on our devices. It’s been a vulnerability for longer than we’ve been around. We’re constantly letting our attention drift away from where we presently find ourselves. This diluted attention isn’t a strength. We’re never better at what we’re doing when we don’t have our full attention and energy allocated to the single task in the moment. When asked what the most important shot in golf is, elite performers respond with “the next one”. Right here, right now is the only place and time over which we have some element of control. Our efforts in the immediate moment are the primary contributor to our production. If we’re not fully focused on the present, we’re squandering our efforts. Our diligence is diluted when distracted.

In 365 Days with Self-Discipline, Mark Meadows quotes an observation from John Guest. Guest recounts a story about a farmer, “As he walked across the farmyard toward the hen house, he noticed the pump was leaking. So he stopped to fix it. It needed a new washer, so he set off to the barn to get one. But on the way he saw that the hayloft needed straightening, so he went to fetch the pitchfork. Hanging next to the pitchfork was a broom with a broken handle. ‘I must make a note to myself to buy a broom handle the next time I get to town,’ he thought… By now it is clear that the farmer is not going to get his eggs gathered, nor is he likely to accomplish anything else he sets out to do. He is utterly, gloriously spontaneous, but he is hardly free. He is, if anything, a prisoner to his unbridled spontaneity. The fact of the matter is that discipline is the only way to freedom; it is the necessary context for spontaneity.” Without focus fixated on a specific task, our attention is led by the outside world. We lose control over our efforts and buzz from one thing to another as the farmer in Guest’s example.

Japanese Zen Master, Taisen Deshimaru, taught of the importance of focusing our attention on the present. “Life is a succession of here and now, here and now, unceasing concentration in the here and now.” Separately, Deshimaru writes, “The actions of every instant, every day, must be right… Every gesture is important.” Our capabilities are useless without attentional ability. Focusing on the task at hand is where we are able to exert our influence on the world. Many others have tried to convince us of the value of now. A popular quote to this effect attributed to Bill Keane, is “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift which is why we call it the present.”

Control of attention is something high performers consciously craft. We consider Dentists, Lawyers, Surgeons, and Pilots to be serious professionals. They work long and hard to get to perform in their chosen fields. One thing they share is that their work is impactful to others. They can’t afford to make mistakes. Their patients and customers need these professionals to be fully engaged and committed to their craft. All of these roles are well paid. They’re paid in proportion to the responsibility they imply. Their actions matter. Do overs aren’t possible. In this way, these jobs are similar to professional athletes. Distractions are the devil. Removing these entirely is an ongoing focus. Attention training is done. There are many stories about the lengths that Tiger Wood’s father would go to train his son’s mental skills. When addressing the ball, Earl would make sounds or hurl derogatory comments at his son. It’s something most of us can’t even imagine doing, but Earl was almost ruthless in his efforts to expose Tiger to intrusions in order to help Tiger become impervious to them. Tiger’s legendary focus followed these aggressive training tactics. Devoting attention to the task at hand is a desired skill. Besides leaving obvious distractions like phones out of sight and, hopefully, out of mind, these types of professionals hone their focus by developing routines.

Sport Psychologist, Tim Grover, writes in his book Relentless, “I want you in a routine, and I don’t want that routine to vary, whether it’s a meaningless preseason exhibition or the championship game of the Finals. Do what you do every day, so you never have to account for your environment or the situation. Everything stays the same.” Routines for high performers are almost never ending. It’s not just about routines related to the activity itself. There are routines for getting in the right frame of mind directly before and after the action. For example, professional golfers have not just a swing routine, but a pre shot routine and post shot one as well. Each has detailed elements involved intended to give the athlete the best chance at reliably producing a desired result. They have routines associated with shifting from one task to the other. It’s important to put the current task to bed before shifting to the next otherwise we’ll be back to our earlier example of thinking about what we’re going to watch on Netflix when we get home while we’re supposed to be refining that client proposal at work today.

From the outside routines can look like constraints. Freedom of action and spontaneity are reduced by the rigidity of routines. However, the opposite is the case. Routines are liberating. Writer and running guru, George Sheehan in The Essential Sheehan, offers “To lead life well and attend to the major things, we must…make as much of our daily activity as possible simply habit. Otherwise we will consume both energy and time making decisions.” Tim Gallwey writes in The Inner Game of Tennis, “Probably the most often repeated dictum in tennis is ‘Watch the ball,’ yet few players see it well. The instruction is an appeal for the player to simply ‘pay attention.’ By giving our attention an object upon which to focus, we remove all the other distractions to the side. Routines can offer us a ball to watch. They provide us with something to focus upon which quiets the noise around us while directing us to the task at hand.

Many professions have routines built in to them that look an awful lot like superstitions. Before a game, athletes put on their team clothes and equipment. They may have their own idiosyncratic order of operations or insert a personal symbol in this process that they believe constitutes good luck. However, the act of putting on the protective equipment, pants, and team jersey serve the purpose of shifting the athlete’s attention from their everyday concerns to that of the environment they are about to enter, their sport. Surgeons, too, go through purposeful routines prior to their activity. They wash with great care, they put on surgical scrubs and protective gear. This process is both practical as well as allowing for attention to shift. Surgeons separate themselves from the outside world by going through this process and allocating their attention fully to the surgical environment. Priests are another group that have similar routines prior to performing their profession. Many ministers will put on their robe as well as a specific symbol of their faith well before receiving their congregation. All of these routines serve to prepare the participant’s focus purposefully.

In a Harvard Business Review article from February 2017 by Daniel McGinn, McGinn interviews legendary comedian Jerry Seinfeld. To a question, Seinfeld responds, “But every comedian, like every athlete, has a little routine. Mine is to look at my notes until five minutes before the show. When my tour producer says, ‘Five minutes,’ I put on the jacket, and when the jacket goes on, it’s like my body knows, “OK, now we’ve got to do our trick.” And then I stand, and I like to just walk back and forth, and that’s it. That’s my little preshow routine. I never vary it. It just feels comfortable.”

High performers will be embracing similar routines prior to arriving at their performance venue. Long before the performance, from the earliest moments of a “game day” routines are built to achieve a peak state of mind. High performers across activities are consistent in that they are proactively constructing their days in order to put themselves on automatic pilot. They are getting up at a specific time, eating the same breakfast, wearing the same clothes, and driving to their places of work the same way. These aren’t superstitions, they are efforts at separating their non-work lives from their work lives. It’s preparing them to allocate their attention in the arena where they are expected to perform at their best.

In a world where we may continue to be working from home at least some of the time, how can we create routines which help us to separate our business and personal lives? We less regularly have our commutes to help us make these mindset shifts between home and work. Consider creating two small routines to help start and end your work days.

Can you create a pre-work routine at home to get you ready for your work day? Move your mindset from home to work by the way you prepare and place yourself in your home office. Prepare a nice warm beverage, say good bye to family members in the home and let them know you’re entering work mode, close a door to your office if you can, and take a minute to reflect on the two to three things you want to accomplish today.

What can you do at the end of the day to help you transition away from work to focus on home? Create a separate approach to wind things down at the end of the day. Detail where you made progress, what two to three things you want to accomplish tomorrow, what you would like to have improved upon, and then shut down the computer and be done. Move with calm and commitment back from work into your home.

Additionally, if you know you have a virtual presentation or meeting, give yourself time in advance of the session to properly prepare. Take some of this time to touch up your grooming and dress. During this time move your mind to what you will be meeting about. Ask what is the goal of this conversation? How can I contribute to the meeting? Prepare a couple of questions in your notebook and keep the agenda nearby to help you stay focused as the meeting moves forward. Allocate ten to fifteen minutes to refine this routine before each meeting to allow you to bring your best to them reliably. Take five minutes post a meeting to detail what the core takeaways of the conversation were. Are there specific tasks you’ve been assigned. Take the time in the moments immediately post a session to debrief and detail these key aspects.

Routines serve to save focus for what matters. Though similar to superstitions, routines are attempts to assert control over circumstances and put one in the best position possible to perform well. Routines aren’t the exclusive purview of professional athletes and surgeons. We can all benefit from routines. At its core, routines build structure around an activity. Routines can be developed for specific tasks as well as for broader periods of time. Rely on your routines to help you focus on the task at hand.