Once my wife went to the store to get eggs and came home with lemonade, and no eggs. When I asked how that happened, she replied that she was distracted by the lemonade. According to her it was a bit more complicated, but I prefer the simpleness of that statement.
These distractions seem to be happening to both of us more frequently these days and I am unsure if it is a sign of the times, our age, or both. It is certainly a lack of focus. It is what some call a “Squirrel Distraction,” a moment when we have been distracted by random nothingness or have been diverted from a task or situation with little or no effort. A phrase that gained tremendous popularity from the 2009 Pixar movie “Up.” It can also be called “Shiny Object Syndrome.”
Busy lives mean lots of distractions. Many of us start the day with great intentions to then be pulled in every possible direction. Too many requests from others, too many opportunities to pursue, and temptations that draw us away from our true values and priorities. Our day then looks like a chaotic attempt to get traction while making little headway. All the while, more and more distractions pile up. Often, we can hardly remember what we wanted to accomplish in the first place, like buying eggs.
Someone once said “Starve your distractions. Feed your focus.” Success flows from focus, especially on the correct elements of a process. Successful leadership is focused on people and not procedures. We need to be focused on solving issues, not making excuses. As I mention often in my blog posts, we need to focus on being rather than doing . We have all driven a car while deep in thought and realized that we have little or no recollection of what we saw while driving. A bit scary, actually. Albert Einstein hit the nail on the head when he said, “Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.”
The world needs people focused on results not actions. If we focus on the inconvenience of getting up at 2AM to soothe a crying baby, the discomfort we feel during wind sprints at the end of practice, or the muscle pain of kayaking for hours, then we will be irritable, maybe even agitated. However, if the focus is on the bonding with our daughter who we will someday walk down the aisle, being in better shape for Friday night, or the happiness of a friend to put his new kayak through its paces, then we will be satisfied, maybe even fulfilled. The focus on outcomes shifts away from tasks. If the focus is on the meal that requires the eggs, it is unlikely lemonade would be purchased.
In the workplace, there is a constant stream of internal and external distractions that splinter our attention, energy, and ability to operate at a high level of efficiency and creativity. We feel that everything is important and if everything is important, then nothing is important. A loss of focus can be due to the need to focus on multiple things. We can suffer from ‘context switching,’ mentally switching from one train of thought to another. It gives the illusion of busyness and progress, but it drains productivity and leads to mistakes.
I manage three large accounts, interestingly enough called ‘Focused Accounts’, in my job. These accounts each have unique needs and demands that require focus. I noticed over these past few years, how challenging it is to switch from one significant, high value workstream to another. It takes time to refocus my energies on the different topic, only to come back to previous workstream later that same day and again refocus.
Research suggests that the ability to focus and pay attention is on the decline. A study by Microsoft (May 2015) showed that human attention spans are now lower than those of goldfish, falling to 8 seconds from the previous benchmark of 12 seconds in the year 2000. Goldfish can apparently hold their attention for 9 seconds. The ability to focus is becoming increasingly difficult given the overwhelming bombardment we get via mobile devices, social media, among other stimuli. We have come to the point that these ‘notifications’ are not seen as a distraction, but as a signal that must be addressed immediately.
Several years ago, Disney World executives were wondering what most captured the attention of toddlers and infants at their theme park and hotels. They hired a cultural anthropologist to observe them as they passed by all the costumed cast members, animated creatures, twirling rides, sweet-smelling snacks, and colorful toys. After a couple of hours of close observation, they realized that what most captured the young children’s attention wasn’t Disney-conjured magic. It was their parents’ cell phones, especially when the parents were focused on them and not the Disney magic. Those kids mirrored what held their parents’ attention.
What we give our attention to, grows. It wires our neurons and shapes the brain. Fortunately, the brain can be strengthened through the right kind of exercise. However, it starts with awareness. We need to be aware when we are distracted and lose focus. When our mind wanders, notice that it has wandered, bring it back to the desired point of focus, and keep it there. Be intentional. Every task deserves our full attention, and we need to notice when we’re not giving it. Easily said, hard to do.
Managing our focus is important for the ability to get things done, or to engage in meaningful conversations. My dad always made whomever he was talking to feel as if they were the most important person to him at that moment. In turn he expected the same when he was talking. I remember when I was about 12, sitting in the car’s backseat while my dad was driving and talking with an older relative. During my dad’s talking point, the relative leaned over to turn up the radio saying how much he loved the song being played. My dad said maybe a dozen more words for the remainder of the drive.
Since the fall of man, people have had trouble staying focused. There are countless examples in the Bible of someone shifting their attention from something of greater, or Greatest, importance to something of lesser importance – Martha was distracted with much serving; Samson let his relationship distract him from his purpose; and David got distracted by Bathsheba. Distraction can prevent us from experiencing what God has for us or puts us someplace we shouldn’t be.
St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians (3:1-4) is about retaining the message of the gospel that the risen, living Christ is the source of our salvation. Be free from the distractions of the things of the world. In Luke’s Gospel (9:62) Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” He is urging that we cannot be distracted no matter how briefly from proclaiming the kingdom of God. Paul adds to Luke’s message in Philippians 3:12-14, “forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.”
Distraction forces us to ask God for help because getting back on track from being distracted is easily said, but hard to do. It requires us to be intentional with our focus. And rely on our faith. God is not as interested in our efficiency as he is in our faith.
I have little or no recollection of what meal needed the eggs, but I always welcome a cold glass of lemonade.