“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).

Do you know you?

“Me” vs. “I”:
Broadly speaking there are two categories of self-awareness: “me” and “I”.

“Me” is the sum total of our life – our past experiences and future hopes. The more time we’ve spent reflecting on the events of our lives and the impact our experiences have had on us the more self-aware we’ll be. Self-awareness also increases when we regularly check in on where we’re headed and how we will get there.

“I” is the raw experience of the here and now. What are we thinking and feeling right now? Do I feel tired? Do I feel anxious? Am I annoyed with the person talking to me? Do I have pain in my lower back? Am I struggling with distraction as I read this blog? The better we get at being in-tune with what we’re thinking and feeling in a given moment the more self-aware we will be.

Quick brain exercise:

Close your eyes and begin to slowly and deeply breath in through your nose and out through your mouth. Do this several times. Focus only on your breathing. Did this calm you down? No? Try again. Try to do it 10 times. Slow in, slow out. Only focus on your breath.

Were you able to do it? Or did your mind race off somewhere?

Here’s another one: close your eyes and begin your deep and slow breathing as before. Now try to listen for and hear your heartbeat. Don’t “check your pulse” with your finger. Just listen and feel for it.

Were you able to detect your heartbeat?

There is a part of the brain, called the Insula, that is responsible for this internal detection of how we feel in a given moment. Those exercises activated the Insula. The stronger our Insula the better we are at being in-tune with how we’re feeling in the moment (and the better we become at being in-tune with how others are feeling).

So what?

Why does this matter? Why is it important to know myself and to be in-tune with what and how I’m thinking and feeling?

Performance and growth. That’s why. High performers are aware of their tendencies (“me”) and in-tune with their current state (“I”) and are able to control what they do and say. Individuals that perform well over time are not passive objects floating down the river of time. They are intelligent agents who create and shape the future.

This ability to control oneself and exercise willpower is powered by the Executive Function of the brain. The Executive Function is in charge of self-discipline, controlling attention, and the ability to resist temptations.

$10k right now or $1M tomorrow?

Stanford University psychologist Walter Mischel conducted a “marshmallow test” on four-year-olds which highlights the Executive Function of the brain quite well.

Walter invited four-year-olds into a classroom one-by-one. “In the room the child was shown a tray with marshmallows or other treats and told to pick one he/she would like.

Then came the hard part. The experimenter told the child, “You can have your treat now, if you want. But if you don’t eat it until I come back from running an errand, you can have two then.”

The room was sanitized of distractions: no toys, no books, not even a picture. Self-control was a major feat for a four-year-old under such dire conditions. About a third grabbed the marshmallow on the spot, while another third or so waited the endless fifteen minutes until they were rewarded with two (the other third fell somewhere in the middle). Most significant: the ones who resisted the lure of the sweet had higher scores on measures of executive control, particularly the reallocation of attention.

“How we focus holds the key to willpower”, said Walter. The kids who waited out the full fifteen minutes did it by distracting themselves with tactics like play, singing songs, or covering their eyes. If a kid just stared at the marshmallow, he was a goner (or more precisely, the marshmallow was!).”**

Are you ready to increase self-awareness?

Dream for a moment. What if you could control that sarcastic comment? What if you could turn your phone off after 30 minutes like you planned (instead of watching 30 more minutes of YouTube clips)? What if you could be aware of when you’re anxious and turn your attention to something else? What if you could say “no” today in order to say “yes” to something better tomorrow?

These are the skills that help us take our performance to the next level. The application of this skill is ubiquitous – there is not an area of your life and work where greater self-awareness and control will not pay exponential dividends.

At Express Pros Training we work with managers, employees and teams to grow these skills and improve performance.

Reach out and let’s talk about a path forward.

*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.

**This was a lengthy quote from Goleman’s book. pp 78-79.