Concentration is the secret of strength.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
If you chase two rabbits, both will escape.
In a previous blog we examined the first of three mental or cognitive attributes of Actualized Leaders: Objective. In this blog I would like to examine the second cognitive ability practiced by self-actualizing individuals: Hyperfocus. Hyperfocus may be best thought of as a laser-like focus or total immersion and concentration on the task at hand. For our purposes, I define Hyperfocus as an intense form of mental concentration or visualization focused on a subject or activity. Please note that there are two distinct manifestations of Hyperfocus: Concentration and visualization. Before we examine these unique but interrelated aspects, it may be worthwhile to explore the opposite of Hyperfocus to gain a better understanding of this foundational element of Actualized Leaders.
Inattention, absent-minded or distracted are all terms used to describe the opposite of Hyperfocus. They describe a mental state that is deficient or lacking in concentrated attention and focus. It is important to note that I am not referring to any of the multitude of “attention deficit” conditions or disorders that are common today, both in children and adults. These conditions are generally considered to be biological in nature and are most effectively treated with medication. What I am referring to here is a relatively “normal” functioning adult who finds himself often distracted, or herself being inattentive to the task at hand. These distractions come in a number of disguises: random day-dreaming, hunger, little interest in the task at hand, updating our own “status,” and the like. In an increasingly complex and hyperconnected world with seemingly limitless distractions, it is more imperative than ever that we earnestly focus on our focus, or lack thereof.
The world-famous guru of Emotional Intelligence Daniel Goleman’s best-selling book “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence” provides a very compelling “business case” for why leaders today, perhaps more than ever, need to pay attention to our, well, attention. His research found that the most effective way for leaders to direct the energy and attention of their organizational members was to direct and focus their own attention first. He found that attention and focus were like muscles – the more you used them the more developed they became. And, the opposite is also true. If you go through life distracted and inattentive, these muscles will wither and atrophy.
The definition above refers to two unique manifestations of Hyperfocus: Concentration and visualization. Concentration is what we typically think of in this context – a direct focus or total immersion with the task at hand. Many musicians, artists, and athletes often report this kind of intense attention where a loss of time, sometimes entire days, is often reported.
The second manifestation of Hyperfocus is known as visualization. First popularized in western culture by Carl Jung, he referred to this as “active imagination,” a meditation technique where an individual taps into his or her subconscious and imagines or fantasizes about the task or event. This has long been a popular technique of athletes who imagine the final shot at the buzzer, or the field goal attempt as time expires. For example, “Nice Shot,” a well-known golf program in the 1980s, focused on visualizing the shot before swinging the club. And on the basketball court, Michael Jordan stated that he visualized making every shot before he attempted it. Other famous individuals, from Oprah Winfrey and Jim Carrey to Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, credit an active imagination, and visualizing the desired outcome, with their success.
So, why is Hyperfocus such a challenge for us today? I think there are several reasons. First, we live in a society where being distracted is actually reinforced. From having conference calls in the airport, or the grocery store, to planning the next Monday Night Football or tailgating outing, we multitask and self-medicate our way through life. Second, we are hyperconnected to work and to our kids. Constantly texting with your daughter or son, or e-mailing work colleagues, keeps you from ever being in “your” moment. And, we live in a more self-centered world where there are multiple and ever-emerging options for careers and for partners. As a result we often avoid commitment and execution by keeping these options open, commonly couched as “playing it by ear,” which really means waiting for something or someone “better” to come along. We can and do miss the opportunities available to us by “chasing two rabbits.” And sadly, they often both elude us.
Consider this scenario: when a perfect meal is served do you savor it over wine and conversation, or do you immediately take a picture of it and update your status? Many of us have been guilty of the latter. In a sense, we chased two rabbits – the social status “update” and the meal – and likely lost both. Our picture-taking and posting activities likely prevented us from truly enjoying the meal (not to mention irritated those seated beside us), and meanwhile our Facebook “friends” are rolling their eyes at yet another “perfect meal” update. So, try to disconnect in order to truly reconnect with the task at hand, and with your ultimate potential. The next time you feel distracted, consciously remove any and all distractions and allow yourself to become lost in the moment, whether at work or at the dinner table. And when you find a delicious meal in front of you, savor it, the company, and the conversation that accompany it. Your dinner companion, restaurant table “neighbors,” and Facebook friends will appreciate it. And so will you.