Focus

Daniel Goleman Also available in audiobook: Download our app for free listening.

Has attention become the scarcest resource these days? This is the fundamental theme of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, by author Daniel Goleman. The answer is simple. Yes, paying attention is a forgotten but increasingly valuable skill. As the world rapidly evolves, it becomes increasingly easy to distract, isolate, and feel lost with so much information and so much going on.

However, if you want to be successful, productive and have better personal and professional relationships, you need to develop your focus. You bet this microbook helped us a lot here in the 12min team. We separated the best tips for you to increase your attention level and fire away. After all, here we also have the habit of doing many things simultaneously. It was a pleasure to focus a lot on the book and prepare this brief for you!

Pay Attention, A Key Skill

We often think that the present world and the immense amount of information to which we are exposed can block our attention. Lots of information creates, in fact, the scarcity of attention.

For Goleman, this is not the main point of this discussion. This is inevitable, and we have to get used to an ever-accelerating world. The great truth is that attention works like a muscle. If you don’t use it, it atrophies, but if you work it out, then it grows and develops. Attention is something that shapes one’s reality. Think about how your worldview is shaped by the things to which you pay attention. Everything you decide to focus on is a filter of how you see the world and learn from it. Goleman quotes the great Star Wars master Yoda in this passage: "Your focus is your reality!" It is essential, therefore, that we choose cautiously where we "spend" our attention, to determine what we want to see and be.

Two Types of Distractions...

There are two main types of distractions. Sensory and emotional distractions. Sensory distractions are external factors that stimulate our brains, such as noises, new colors, tastes, smells, and sensations. Over time, our brains are very efficient at detaching from this type of distraction, and this occurs naturally when, for example, you study and listen to music.

Emotional distraction occurs when, for example, we hear our name, have a problem in our lives or end a relationship. Those who have a focus more immune to emotional turmoil are generally less shaken by crises and keep their lives on track during this time. We need to be able to deal with these two types of distractions to keep our attention focused. If you have focused attention, the brain connects the information we already know to the new information, creating new neural connections. When we are not focused, our brain does not make these connections, which impairs the retention of knowledge. The more distracted we are, the less content we capture because our brain is unable to make the connections between what we already know about a particular subject and what we do not know about it. When we read a book (or a summary of 12min), our brain creates a network of paths that unites ideas and experiences. To be able to read deeply (the so-called deep reading), one must have constant concentration and be immersed in the subject. You will not achieve great results in your learning by jumping between facts about subjects and various contents.

DO NOT LIVE IN CRUISE-CONTROL

The brain has two semi-independent mental systems, and each has its own characteristics. One of them works from bottom to top (bottom-up mind) and another that works from top to bottom (top-down mind). Understanding this functioning is essential to developing your focus and knowing which area is working in each moment.

Bottom-up mindset: It has high processing capacity, solving problems involuntarily and automatically. We are not able to perceive its functioning;

  • It is fast and needs little energy to run, so most often it takes over.

  • It manages the mental models of how we perceive the world;

  • It processes information by association, is intuitive;

  • It is driven by emotions, therefore it is impulsive;

  • It works in multitasking mode and filters our perception to show us what it thinks relevant;

This part of the brain began to develop millions of years ago when our main instincts were geared toward survival. Therefore, it usually acts by bringing short-term thoughts, impulses and quick decisions;

Top-Down Mindset: Our consciousness resides here, where we have control and manage it through our intentions. These mental activities occur in the neocortex; Monitor and can, somehow, direct the top-down mind.

  • It is slower and consumes effort and energy to be used, so it is not able to work for long without pauses;

  • It requires voluntary effort to be activated;

  • Therein resides self-control, our ability to overlap the thoughts of the bottom-up mind.

  • It is able to learn new models, new plans and partially take care of our automatic mental responses;

  • You can process only one piece of information at a time, and you need to analyze a lot before arriving at an answer;

  • It has developed hundreds of thousands of years after the bottom-up mind, giving the human being the ability to reflect, get to know, decide and plan.

The purpose of your brain, when confronted with a new stimulus, is to distribute mental tasks between the two systems above with the least effort possible and to have the best result. The more we develop a skill and turn it into a habit or a routine, the more it is passed from the top-down mind to the bottom-up mind.

Ever heard of athletes who do an exercise so many times that it ends up in the muscle memory? In fact, the phenomenon that occurs is that the brain is leaving this repetition more and more automated.

This automation releases our attention so we can learn new things and develop ourselves. Therefore, one of the secrets of developing your focus is simply to turn your core activities into habits and get your bottom-up brain to assimilate them. The more you expose your brain to more information, your ability to control it is reduced. The more distracted you are, the more prone to mistakes, mental fatigue and stress. The bottom-up circuits absorb habits quickly and quietly during the day and although this is useful if you have good habits you want to develop if you have a bad routine and many distractions, this system can also assimilate these situations and understand them as routines we create unconsciously.

There are many pitfalls to your bottom-up mind, often even used by advertising campaigns. Remember that model smiling at the beverage commercial? Yes, the idea is that you associate this with the habit of drinking and, thus, drink more.

Digressing and Lose Focusing Also Have Their Roles...

It is not always useful to have single or all your attention devoted to only on one goal. Keeping your focus open and keeping your thoughts drifting also plays an important role. But instead of drifting toward something lost, it is always possible to move toward things that are valuable and from there come great insights.

Obviously, it is getting harder to have time to be alone with yourself, relax and reflect, but it is very important that you have these moments as they are able to dramatically increase your creative potential and your imagination. For simple tasks that require little focus, such as enveloping letter envelopes, it pays to let your mind drift and make room for ramblings. Of course, for many, this can be challenging. People accustomed to extremely busy routines, executives, and information professionals often find it difficult to detach themselves from the subject in focus and explore new ideas/possibilities. One technique cited by Goleman to solve this was adopted by Peter Schweitzer. He worked with encryption and always found himself in intense data analysis situations to uncover combinations and encrypted secrets. This is a task that requires a lot of focus. However, he decided to perform these activities while walking, to have more external stimuli and to work other areas of the brain. There are also people who have great difficulty concentrating and who keep their brains adrift, with a strong willingness to ramble. They are more spontaneous and have interesting skills, such as the ability to improvise and make connections between areas farther from the brain. Many rappers are in this category, for example. In some cases, this may be the result of a condition called Attention Deficit Disorder or ADD.

Learn to Be Creative, Digress With Focus

To develop your creativity, you have to go through three main steps: Guidance - when you look outside and look for all kinds of information that could help you; Selective attention - when we specifically focus on the challenge we want to solve; Understanding - when we associate the information freely to let the solution appear. In today's world, where almost everyone has access to the same information, the value created comes from synthesis, the ability to combine ideas in new ways, solving high-impact problems. The ability to ramble leaves your mind free to make these combinations, while a busy schedule full of commitments closes you to these possibilities. A Harvard study, called "The Power of Little Wins," found that the best ideas flow when people have clear goals, but also the freedom to know how to reach them. If you want to be creative, it is important to always give your brain this time to think freely. The most important thing is to have several small wins in the way of your goal and to iterate until the problem is solved.

Finding The Balance...

It may seem difficult to accept, but what distracts us most is not the people around us, but our own mind. In order to concentrate, we must be able to silence our internal interruptions. To achieve this state, Goleman recommends the practice of the mindfulness philosophy. The premise is simple: when we turn to our senses and focus on perceiving them all the time, the noises in our brain are silenced and the mental circuits quiet down to the personal issues that distract you. Your brain lives a constant conflict between rambling and realizing exactly where you are at that moment. If you use your energy to ramble, your perception of the world at that moment is reduced. However, if you focus on perceiving your environment and the stimuli of the world, your brain abandons the ramblings.

It is important to find your balance point and ensure that your thoughts and performance are meeting your goals. If your brain maintains constant focus for too long, then it gets tired, and you can get to the point of cognitive exhaustion, becoming unable to learn. The main signs of cognitive exhaustion are: drop in productivity, irritability, and lack of energy to think. To restore your mental energy and always keep it at a high level, you need to switch between voluntarily focused attention and allow the mind to relax and wander. To achieve this middle ground, from time to time, do something relaxing, take a walk, play with your children, do something that does not require a great concentration.

Discover Your Inner Voice

Achieving your goals is something that requires hard work, focus, and sacrifice, that is willpower. Willpower, according to research cited by Goleman, has a high correlation with professional success. To develop your focus, you will need to develop your willpower and the most effective way to develop it is to do what you love, something aligned with your inner voice. Your willpower increases if your work reflects your personal values.

Steve Jobs has always advised that we should not let other people's voices erase our inner voice. We must also follow our hearts and intuition, for they know what we want to be and where we want to be, he said. Our irrational feelings and biological reactions to information are bottom-up circuits that simplify our decisions, guiding our attention among the best options. The better we become at reading these stimuli, the better our intuition becomes. We need to get to know ourselves to evolve our focus.

The Power of Emotional Resilience

Emotional resilience comes into play as we recover from the setbacks of life. Highly resilient people have their left prefrontal brain area, part of our most developed top-down mechanism, to prevent emotions from sequestering their thinking ability. Developing yourself as an individual is essential if you are to become emotionally resilient. You can do this in two ways, both of them focusing on understanding how you operate. The first of these is self-knowledge. If you can understand your strengths, weaknesses, and your likes, you will be able to work on these qualities to develop emotionally. The second is to use metacognition. If you understand the processes that lead you to learn new things and the processes that hinder you, you will be able to stop problematic mental habits.

Understanding Empathy

Empathy has two main forms, cognitive empathy, and emotional empathy. The first enables us to see the world through the eyes of others and put ourselves in their place. Cognitive empathy helps us understand other people's mental state and why they act in a specific way.

It allows us to observe, for example, whether a person is happy or sad just looking at their expression. It is a recognition of empathy: we understand, but not necessarily sympathize with the cause/feeling of the person. Psychopaths, for example, use this kind of empathy to manipulate people according to their interests. Emotional empathy allows us to feel what others are feeling. It is a physical phenomenon that makes us feel sad and happy from a stimulus from another person. This kind of empathy is based on the actual sharing of feeling with the other person.

Understanding how empathy works is essential to develop our ability to focus, because the more empathy we have with the other person, the more she feels we care and the more she feels heard. However, there are times when we need to isolate ourselves from the emotions derived from empathy to stay calm and focused on what needs to be done, even with emotional complications.

Understand The System As A Hole

The human being is a creature who, by nature, thinks in the short term. We have the habit of focusing on the immediate and forget the long term, dismissing a systemic thinking model, in which we have a vision of the whole. This predisposition is innate and comes from our bottom-up mind. It is necessary to train our mind so that it always takes into account this wider context because when we try to solve a problem focusing only on the short-term result, we arrive at partial and temporary solutions. An interesting example of this adopted by Goleman in the book is the problem of traffic jams. The short-term solution is simple, just increase the width of the roads. But in the long run, traffic jams happen again, and mass transportation is no longer viable. Our incomplete mental model of bottlenecks exists because we do not take into account the systemic dynamics of transport as a whole. Our perceptions and mental models are derived from the skills that helped our ancestors to survive in the jungle, relying on local thinking and, most of the time, do not work to understand the systems of today's world. If we rely only on them, we run the risk of being the frog in a pan of boiling water. We will die cooked, without understanding why! Focusing on the broader context of any problem enables us to think not only of the immediate effects but also of the distant future.

How Leaders Can Lead People

In order to lead, focus is an essential skill, and in this case, focus means not only the leader's focus but the ability to direct the followers to the right path, which is aligned with the organization's goals. For a leader, knowing how to direct is even more important than your professional qualifications or your IQ. Successful leaders have self-knowledge and know how to capture the attention of their people. They also know that to give direction to them, and the direction must have meaning.

Successful leaders are always seeking new information because they need to understand the system where they act and have a great synergy between their emotional reality and that of the people they seek to inspire. One of the biggest challenges, in this case, is knowing how to listen, which is a characteristic related to emotional empathy. Today, not knowing how to listen is almost an epidemic in companies, and to lead, we need to talk less about ourselves and pay attention to what matters to others and to the group. Also, good leaders also know that their followers look up to where their attention is.

Therefore, it is important to have a clear and strategic model of organizational focus. Steve Jobs, for example, had a simple guideline, which was based on "deciding not to work is as important as deciding what to work on." To create a successful strategy, you need to have a constant tension between two strategies. Good leaders are able to know when to switch between:

  • Becoming more efficient within the focus: The ability to learn and evolve, improving current ability;

  • Explore outside of the current focus: The ability to detach from the current focus to seek new possibilities; In order to be able to switch between the two, it is necessary to know whether to disconnect from the organizational routine and thus allow your company to develop its ability to learn. It is also essential that the modern leader be able to communicate the impact and significance of the company's focus. Inspiring leaders strive to empower and contribute to their employees and the community. A good leader always focuses on identifying and developing the potential of others. The Brownies Greyston Bakery Factory, located in a poor area of the Bronx, New York, has an inspiring story. It only hires people who can not find work and would not normally be accepted by the job market. They have a slogan that communicates their purpose, their meaning to the world: "We do not hire people to bake brownies. We roast brownies to hire people. " Leaders who lack empathy are unable to see their impact on the lives of others and the system where they are embedded.

What Makes You a Good Leader?

Once you have acquired empathy, self-knowledge and are able to influence people, how do you stand out and be sure that you have become a good leader? In practice, it is being able to mentor and advise your mentees with mastery. One must always keep in mind that:

  • You are able to articulate with energy to your followers an authentic view of the reasons why you are taking this direction and make expectations clear to them;

  • To understand, to really care about what people look for in their lives, careers and in their work and, and from there, give them advice;

  • Listen to advice and experience. Always collaborate with the team and know how to use consensus when necessary;

  • Knowing that celebrating wins, laughing, having fun with your team is not a waste of time but a great tool for developing yourself emotionally.

If you are a leader and adopt these practices, you will probably develop a team with high performance and alignment. A good team is focused on developing self-knowledge of its members and bringing up discussions before they explode. It is the leader's role to create this environment by fostering group intelligence and creating a sense of trust and confidence in its members. In addition, to ensure the harmony of your team, Goleman also recommends that you meet your team periodically and talk frankly about the dynamics of the team, so the group understands and decides what changes should be made.

Final Notes:

This is, in our opinion, one of the most fantastic books on focus and leadership ever written. If you got here, you probably found this summary too big (at least for a summary), and we apologize for that. For us, the key lessons of this book are:

  • Understand how your brain works. Know when you are in control and when you are not in order to better focus;

  • Digressing is important. As much as we want you focused on the day to day, it is essential to have free time to think about new problems and be creative;

  • Empathy is important, but you must know how to isolate it and use it according to your purpose;

  • A good leader manages to direct his/her team to achieve audacious, meaningful goals. For this, he/she needs self-knowledge and to really care about his people.

12min tip: We really recommend you to buy the book and read or re-read this summary! The whole content is a must see! #12classics

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