Another coaching call, another problem with focus. It went like this:
Me: How’s your focus been this week?
Her: Awful, just awful?
Me: Why, what happened?
Her: Yesterday, I was trying to get this simple parent letter out. It should have been a 15-minute chore, but it took all morning. I’d start it, and the phone would ring, and I’d start again, and I get an email, and then my assistant came in for 15 minutes. By that time, I’d totally forgotten what I was going to say, so I sat there trying to remember. Oh then the bell rang so I had to get out during passing time, and I needed to find a student to talk to. So 45 minutes later, I finally got back to my desk where another ten emails had come in. It was an awful day. I know it’s my fault, but I can’t seem to help it.
Sound like one of your days?
Like others, this principal struggles with focus and attention during the day, causing her to do most of her deep, cognitive thinking after school or at night. While trying to work hard and focus, this principal gets sucked into a vortex of attention-grabbing black holes.
So how can you better recognize the type of attention you need and use them more consciously? Can you really control your focus and attention as a busy school leader?
Types of Attention
Psychologists who study attention and focus often categorize it into four main types or buckets.
Sustained Attention: This is the classic view we have of attention in which you are hunkered down on one task, not letting in any outside distractions. This type of attention is concentration at its best but is usually limited. It is difficult to sustain this level of awareness for long periods. This form is referred to as “deep work.”
Selective Attention: This form of attention centers on “selecting” what to focus on from lots of choices and ignoring all others. For instance, you might be talking to somebody and centering on them while your computer notices chirp away and your phone rings. Or you hold a conversation in a crowded hall while many other students pass by talking loudly.
Alternating Attention: In this form of attention, you show flexibility while switching between various tasks. You probably do this more than you realize as you have to switch between tasks all the time. As an example, you look some information up on your computer and then switch to a different document to type in that information. Or you could be doing a presentation and have to stop to change your computer screen to a different view.
Divided Attention: Last, and seemingly our current state of attention, we divide our attention to numerous things at once. We check emails while we talk on the phone. Or we try and hold a conversation with a teacher while we watch students at lunchtime. In this state, you are constantly switching back and forth between the two stimuli without a real focus on either.
In most cases, the choice of the type of attention needed happens without your knowing it. However, to better align our kind of focus and attention with our goals, we need a more conscious approach.
Schedule Your Focus and Attention Patterns
In our book The Productive Principal, we wrote about scheduling your daily tasks around your energy levels. Since more energy requires more concentrated attention, we also suggest you organize your day around when you will need the most focus. We use a five-step routine we call FOCUS.
Step 1 Figure Out: List all of the tasks you want to accomplish for the day, and figure out if they need Sustained or Selective attention, or if you could do them using Alternating attention.
Step 2 Organize: Next, think about when you have the most energy and organize your daily calendar with an hour or so for sustained attention. You might have numerous time you know you have more energy so say you block off two times: one from 9:00-10:00 and one from 1:00-2:00 every day.
Step 3 Concentrated Time: Next think about tasks you can do that requires deep concentration or selective attention. These are the deep thinking tasks like writing or planning, which need deep attention and no distractions. Assign your focused tasks to the times in your day when you have most energy for attention.
Step 4 Unconcentrated Time: Think about when you have less energy and therefore struggle more with attention. Schedule tasks needing alternating attention during these periods. For instance, you could sign things while talking with your assistant.
Step 5 Strategies: For those tasks that require sustained attention, decide on strategies to eliminate distractions, and use them:
Work with your assistant to buffer your concentration like holding all calls
Close your door or post a sign saying, “ Deep Focus Required.”
Turn off all phone notifications
Put out a do not disturb sign
Use timed email blocking programs or work on a computer with no email
Set a timer to focus for set periods
In sum, as we have said before, attention has become your most precious resource as a school leader. Focus, like other mental processes, can be developed over time just like any other skill you have to become a more attentive and attuned leader. You need to know the types of attention you need and when they are needed most employing various types based on the ebbs and flows of your day.
Until next time!