Training Opportunities

Manager Minute – How to do thoughtful work when you just can’t focus
June 17, 2020

For leaders navigating unpredictable times, one attribute is critical to thinking strategically: focus. A link to the full article by Fast Company is found at the end of this Daily News post.

For many entrepreneurs, leaders, and creatives, focus has never been more difficult to achieve. According to the U.K.-based New Statesman magazine, Google searches for “how to get your brain to focus” jumped by 300% between February and early May 2020.

Disrupted routines are partly responsible for derailed attention spans, but biology is also part of the cause.

When your brain detects imminent danger, the prefrontal cortex—the area responsible for critical thinking, impulse control, and focus—gives way to more primitive functions that protect you in the present moment. The pandemic is an ongoing threat, but most of us are not in immediate danger. Yet this often-chaotic situation demands clarity. To keep a business afloat or plan for an ever-changing future, you need to think strategically—not frantically.

The good news? Strategic thinking is a practice. Even as the world shifts below our feet, we can cultivate the ability to generate new ideas and make ingenious, unexpected connections. Here are three ways to focus on the big picture.

Jumping from task to task inhibits your ability to process new information. Your mind needs time to let ideas sink in. “Reflection gives the brain an opportunity to pause amidst the chaos, untangle, and sort through observations and experiences, consider multiple possible interpretations, and create meaning,” leadership consultant Jennifer Porter writes for Harvard Business Review. “This meaning becomes learning, which can then inform future mindsets and actions.”

Since the earliest days of my entrepreneurial journey, I’ve taken time off to help my family with the annual olive harvest in my home country of Turkey. It’s an opportunity to reflect on what matters, what’s possible—and how our company can do better. Few of us are taking vacations right now, or spending a week knee-deep in olives, but we can still pause and reflect.

If you’re struggling to pull back from day-to-day details, block off an hour in your calendar. Treat it as a nonnegotiable appointment. Minimize distractions and ask yourself questions such as “What will success look like 2, 5, or 10 years from now?” In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, shorter time frames might also be appropriate. Think 6-8 weeks or even six months into the future and ask about your company, “How do our current projects contribute to our mission?”

Strategic thinking is essential, but it’s not always comfortable. You might have creative breakthroughs and feel inspired to blaze ahead. You might also feel vulnerable, scared, irritated, or even bored. Take a deep breath, sit with those feelings, and persevere.

In my experience, there’s always something valuable on the other side of discomfort.

Travel is always one of the best ways to cultivate fresh ideas, whether you’re attending a conference or seeing the world. Most trips aren’t in the cards for a while, but you can still connect with people who challenge and engage you. Set up a brainstorming session with a friend or colleague. Read about topics outside your normal range of interests.

If you have the time, take an online class or view live presentations. You’ve probably watched some great TED Talks, but I also recommend Creative Mornings, the breakfast speaker series that launched in New York and spread around the globe. These newly virtual talks put the world at your fingertips. Tune in for live presentations from Barcelona to Baltimore or choose from almost 9,000 archived videos.

In other words, with a wider range of viewpoints, you can create something completely above and beyond your individual efforts.

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