Professor Damian Hughes is an international speaker and best-selling author who combines his practical and academic background within sport, organisational development and change psychology, to help organisations and teams to create a high performing culture. Here he shares his tips on how to improve focus.
Focus is the holy grail of modern life. It’s rare. It’s powerful. And it’s tough to find.
Not for lack of trying. To improve focus, most of us use a common-sense method: we actively remind ourselves to do it. Coaches yell it from the sidelines — Come on, focus! Parents instruct kids doing their homework — Stop texting and just focus! We talk to ourselves — Focus now! With the progression of social media and technology at our fingertips, it’s sometimes impossible to focus.
The problem is, that method usually doesn’t work. Urging focus is like kicking the tyres of a car that won’t start. It feels satisfying, but it doesn’t fix the underlying problem, which is that our brains crave the steady-state of comfort, not the effort of focus. So the real question is, how do you design learning environments that tilt people towards focus?
A few years back, traffic engineers in the Netherlands made an unlikely discovery: the best way to make intersections safer was to remove all traffic signs. The results were outstanding: drivers became more attentive and accident rates dropped.
Seems counter intuitive, right? Hans Monderman, the engineer behind this system explains, “When people don’t have signs telling them what to do, they tune in. The lack of guide posts makes people pay more attention. It sends a clear signal that improves focus.”
So how do we design for better focus in the workplace? Here are a few ways:
- Post a calendar with important dates circled and count them down – How many days until the report is due?
- Set out ‘north-star’ goals – Some schools constantly remind kids about college. For example, they name classrooms after the university the teacher attended; they post signs above the bathroom mirrors that ask: Where Are You Going to University? Those signals work like church bells: they ring often, reminding the students of the bigger goal.
- Encourage learners to grade themselves after each session – One top rugby coach uses a two-level system: players either gave their absolute best, or they did not.
The larger point: None of this involves talking, or urging people to focus harder. The goal is to design the environment so it does the urging for you.
This blog is adapted from the Raise the Bar book ‘Raising the Bar: A Leader’s Guide’ by bestselling author Damian Hughes. The book takes twenty-five great lessons from the most engaging leaders.
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