“Total Focus: How to Lead Lasting Growth” is a series of posts aimed at helping leaders develop the muscle and skill of maintaining focus in 3 critical areas: inner-focus (i.e. self-awareness), other-focus (i.e. social-skills), and outer-focus (i.e. systems thinking).*

Are you focused or distracted?

Leaders are intimately aware of the challenge of staying focused – for themselves and their organizations. Focus, or attention – from the Latin attendere, means to “reach toward.” What our minds reach toward will define where we go and what we achieve.

Everyday leaders are bombarded with an endless stream of information, stimuli, and “opportunities.” The challenge to sift through all of this and “reach toward” only what is relevant is a difficult task. How do you feel you’re doing with focus?

Before launching into the 3 critical areas we should focus on and how to grow our mental muscle, it is important to first understand some of the basics.

Your brain and focus

In a simplified way, our brain has two operating systems: top-down thinking and bottom-up thinking.

Top-down thinking is:

  • slower
  • voluntary
  • effortful
  • the seat of control (which can over-power automatic routines and mute emotionally driven impulses)
  • able to learn new models, make new plans, and take charge of our automatic impulses

When we voluntarily give our attention to something or exercise our will power, we are using top-down thinking. We can turn top-down thinking on and off. Prolonged top-down thinking is exhausting and wears us down. Too much of this and we feel “burned out” or “fried.” But this is the essential thinking that analyzes data and information, learns new things, engages in intentional conversations, and enables self-control. Without top-down thinking, we don’t grow and we don’t make progress.

Bottom-up thinking is:

  • faster in brain time, which operates in milliseconds
  • involuntary and automatic: always on
  • intuitive, operating through networks of association
  • impulsive, driven by emotions
  • executor of our habitual routines and guide for our actions
  • manager for our mental models of the world

When we act out of habit, when we act on an impulse or “gut-feeling”, and when we daydream, we’re using bottom-up thinking. Bottom-up thinking is the brain’s mechanism for drawing on assumptions (which we carry from decades of living life on earth) to make quick decisions. We do not use a lot of energy during bottom-up thinking. In fact, bottom-up thinking is always going. It never turns off. Bottom-up thinking is always taking in information and computing it. Ever been taking a shower and a solution to that gnawing problem at work just suddenly “comes to you?” That’s bottom-up thinking!

Relax – it’s the key to high performance

Our brain works hard to be efficient. Its goal is to provide the least amount of effort necessary to get optimal returns. It is constantly working in the background to get this ratio just right: low effort = optimal result.

As we give deliberate attention (top-down thinking) to something new, for example – paying attention to how we react when provided less than desirable news from a direct report, the bottom-up system works to take that new data and store it so that the new skill becomes “rote” or “effortless.”

Before working on self-awareness maybe the leader communicated contempt, frustration, and annoyance after receiving the report. This resulted in the meeting coming to a halt and employees shutting down. But after focused practice and coaching from Express Pros Training, now the leader suspends judgment and critique and soaks in all the information to process before reacting.

At first, this change in behavior takes considerable effort and energy. After three meetings like this in one day the leader is exhausted. During the meeting the leader really can’t focus on ANYTHING except not reacting. But over time the bottom-up system in the brain takes this skill over and it becomes effortless.

Now, during meetings, the leader can relax – no matter the messages coming from direct reports. The top-down system in the brain is freed up (it’s not having to work on self-control. Self-control is now automatic thanks to the bottom-up system) to focus on solving problems, coming up with creative solutions, and keeping the team engaged and motivated.

Are you ready to increase focus?

Top athletes are those that have mastered the essentials. 90% of the game is effortless for them – they have practiced so much that the majority of the skills needed to perform are second-nature, automatic. Their mind is not bogged down in the details. They are thinking about the next move or even the move after the next move. They are relaxed and comfortable. They are confident. These are the benefits of learning how to focus.

Express Pros Training is a management training and consulting company. Reach out if you need help increasing focus for yourself or your team.

*Note: the majority of the material in the series of posts entitled “Total Focus” comes from Daniel Goleman’s book “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence.” I have taken editorial liberty to make the material accessible and reader-friendly. But the core concepts are indebted to Daniel Goleman.