Focus as a New Form of Intelligence

I had just gotten off a recent coaching call with a principal and was writing up my notes on our conversation: I was starting to note a pattern. All of the calls this week had gone something like this.

Me: So, how are you doing?
Them: OK, busy but OK
Me: Great, but how are you really doing?
Them: [deep sigh] I feel overwhelmed already. There is so much to do, and I can’t seem to focus. I am constantly being interrupted. My mind is all over the place. Can you help me develop a better focus?

The question of better focus has become a significant concern for school leaders today. It seems like the more knowledge we have, and the time we spend using technology and social media, the shorter our attention span has become. Unfortunately, this lack of focus has become the norm for many principals.

At the Leading Learners Institute, we are beginning to see focus as your most highly prized resource. Focus is a new form of intelligence that needs to be mastered if you are going to have an impact on your school.

The Poverty of Attention and Focus
So yes, we understand the importance of attention and focus and remind our students all the time about paying attention and focusing, but are we following our own best advice?

In Cal Newport’s new book Digital Minimalism, he suggests we all have started using more and more technology to make our lives simpler. He explains further, “We added new technologies to the periphery of our experience for minor reasons, then woke one morning to discover that they had colonized the core of our daily life. We didn’t, in other words, sign up for the digital world in which we’re currently entrenched; we seem to have stumbled backward into it.”

We all added different tools and apps to help make our lives easier and simpler, but have probably begun to feel less and less in control of our attention. We are losing our ability to focus.

Again, Newport said it succinctly, “Perhaps predictably, this clash of old neural systems with modern innovations has caused problems. Much in the same way that the “innovation” of highly processed foods in the mid-twentieth century led to a global health crisis, the unintended side effects of digital communication tools — a sort of social fast food — are proving to be similarly worrisome.”

Sound familiar?

What is Attention/Focus?
Why is focus so difficult to attain? In our book The Productive Principal, we briefly described attention as intentionally directing your focus and resources on the task at hand. The attention system is made up of interacting processes in the brain.

  • Attention emerges from networks of neurons behind the prefrontal cortex and is highly sensitive to external stimuli. If something grabs our attention, we will automatically shift our focus toward that stimulus.
  • We use our central executive mode to focus and limit what can enter the consciousness so that we can concentrate on the chosen task. This component has limited capacity, given the energy-hungry nature of attention within our prefrontal cortex.
  • Our attentional filter determines what is allowed into our brain from the external environment and is always on in our subconscious, allowing it to gather information from our environment. Our attentional filters can also become easily overwhelmed, which is why it is necessary to focus on one task only.
  • The last component is the attentional switch, which is like a router in your brain, changing your mode of attention as needed.

In short, attention is the primary fuel for a principal’s productivity. It has become an essential commodity and form of intelligence for leaders but is easily hijacked. Knowing what to focus on, when to focus, and how to focus are all areas of critical need.

Better Focus
As school leaders, you need time for deep thinking, planning, observing, and holding productive conversations. You need times of solitude, but I am sure like most other leaders you have been systematically reducing this time in your work and life.

The evidence is clear. The more time you spend online, especially with all forms of social media, the less time you have for social connection and deep thinking work.

We are not suggesting that using technology is wrong, or that you shouldn’t use it. However, we do agree with Newport who suggests that what you “need instead is a full-fledged philosophy of technology use, rooted in your deep values, that provides clear answers to the questions of what tools you should use and why.”

How? Try these steps.

  • Track all of the technology tools you use during a week.
  • List these on a sheet of paper with two columns and beside each try and describe a core work or personal value you get from each. This is especially important for social media.
  • Next, even if you can’t find a value in using a tool, you may be required to, so figure out if you can delegate it to somebody else.
  • For a week, wean yourself away from those digital tools that have no value for you. See if you actually are missing anything by not using this tool.
  • Eliminate the tool totally if you don’t miss it.

Knowing that we live in a high tech world, Newport describes Digital Minimalism as a necessary philosophy for getting actual work done. This philosophy guides your use of online time with tools that support your values and gets rid of everything else.

Until next time.