The Focus Tool: Attend, Avoid, Access

If you are feeling distracted and like you need to get focused, you need the right tool to help your brain work better. You need to rewire your brain back to how it is supposed to work.

By default, our brains don’t function in the most useful way possible. We fall into old patterns, begin worrying, and fear sets in. If you’ve ever talked yourself out of doing your work, you know this is true...

The focus tool works like this:

  1. Attend — you attend to, or focus your attention on something super specific
  2. Avoid — you deliberately avoid doing other things
  3. Access — you access the relevant information to make progress

1. Attend to a specific result

Attention and attendance are closely related. Attending is about showing up. Whatever it is that you are trying to do or accomplish, you must attend to what that is. In other words, you have to go to that place in your brain. It is easy for us to attend to the WRONG things and be driven by what is in front of our face or what is bothering us. But if we want to accomplish our big goals, we have to go to that space.

2. Avoid distractions

To keep our attention fixed, we must actively avoid information and activities that are not relevant to the goal. In other words, we must make a decision to say “no” to interruptions and other “emergencies” that show up. If you don’t decide ahead of time to actively avoid anything that’s not directly related to the result we are working on, we will get caught up in whatever someone else is deciding is important.

On the practical side, this means closing your email application and not checking it for hours. It means leaving your phone in a different room with the ringer OFF. It means isolating yourself from activities and conversations that will pull you off track.

3. Access key info

The third part is to access the relevant information to make progress. In front of your face or at the top of your mind, you must remember or access what is going to help you keep going.

Some of us work well with a deadline to motivate us. “Access” in this context looks like keeping that deadline front and center while we work on the project.

Some us work well with some kind of visual prompt. “Access” in this context looks like having a real picture of what you’re trying to create in front of you while you work.

Brain science: executive functions aren’t default

This is my take on how psychologists and neuroscientists talk about how the brain works. Henry Cloud uses the terms attend, inhibit, remember to describe the same thing. The key is to remember that our brains naturally deviate to a “fear” mindset where we are not operating at our best.

Are difficult people following you everywhere you go?

Wherever you go, you will always deal with difficult people.

Always.

Many of us buy into the myth that at another job, in another organization, things would be so much easier.

The truth is there will be difficult people there, too. But we don’t let ourselves believe that.

We buy into a myth that it can’t be like this at Disney, or Apple, or Pixar.

You don’t want to believe that difficult people is actually the same thing as “people.”

You don’t want to believe there are difficult people everywhere because you want an excuse. You’d love to leave where you are now. So why don’t you? If it’s that bad, then you should get out of there.

Except, you know deep down that you could do something. Except you don’t want to put the time into figuring out the dynamics of how to survive where you are now. You don’t want to lead.

That’s ok. If you don’t want to step up and lead, then you’re stuck. But here is your new rule: you can’t complain.

Complaining means you don’t want to be the one to solve the problem. You can solve your problem by moving to a new job, setting appropriate boundaries, and to level up.

You can solve your problem by setting the expectations for what you can tolerate and what you can’t. You can solve your problem by taking 5 minutes to have a conversation that will give you so the peace of mind you need. You can solve your problem by taking a moment to pause, reflect, and respond.

Leaders don’t react, they respond. Just like your body responds to good medicine (see Henry Cloud’s Boundaries).

Leaders solve problems. The problem you’re in right now can be solved — and it starts with you.

Managing your negative inner voice

It’s 6:55 am. You just woke up and realize you have a meeting at 7:30 am and agreed to grab coffee for your coworkers. The line at the drive-thru is always wrapped around the building by 7:00 am and the slow barista is probably working today, but you think you can make it.

You spring out of bed, jump into the shower and do the abbreviated version of your morning routine. You run through the events of your day and it dawns on you that you are having your in-laws over for an early dinner tonight. You agreed with your spouse a few days ago to organize the mess in the living room before they arrive at 5:00pm, but you have a work-related call that’s going to end 30 minutes before that — at the earliest. You devise a plan. As you finish pulling on your socks, you realize: you haven’t yet said a single word today. All of this thinking has happened in your head.

Has anything like this ever happened to you?

Most adults have an inner voice that narrates, reasons, and strategizes all day long. Psychologists call this internal monologue or self-talk. For most adults, the inner voice could be what causes stress in your life.

How you talk to yourself impacts your quality of life and well being.

We all deal with this inner voice differently, but what if managing your inner voice could help you become more productive and pleasant in your life and work?

What if managing your inner voice could help you become more productive and pleasant in your life and work?

Negative talk

Your inner voice is what interprets your boss’s latest comment. Why did he say that? Am I going to get fired? Was it the expression on my face? Why is he always like this?!

Positive talk

On the other hand, your inner voice is what brings meaning and understanding to your life. Oh yeah, I remember why I took this job. I can put up with this. I’ve got this!

We talk to ourselves all the time. You may have heard of the phrase “positive self talk!” — a chant that sounds nice but can seem a little weird. Here’s a different way to think about it: telling ourselves stories.

Telling ourselves stories

We have the ability to tell ourselves stories in our lives. Jonathan Gottschall illustrates how we tell ourselves a stories in his book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human:

We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories . . . The storytelling mind is allergic to uncertainty, randomness, and coincidence. It is addicted to meaning. If the storytelling mind cannot find meaningful patterns in the world, it will try to impose them. In short, the storytelling mind is a factory that churns out true stories when it can, but will manufacture lies when it can’t.”

Jonathan Gottschall

Even if you don’t remember your dreams, you may have experienced the joy of waking up and being able to see something so much more clearly. You may have also experienced the opposite: waking up and feeling fear or anxiety about an issue, only to find out later, everything was ok. This is because our brains continue to work while we are sleeping: solving problems and bringing meaning to our lives, even when the meaning is wrong. This can become problematic when we have a negative or wrong mindset regarding issues at work.

Our inner voice intersecting with our work

Many of our jobs today are knowledge-based positions. We make sense of information and make decisions based on inputs. You know this is true because if you’re reading this and following, you probably don’t work in a factory every day. Peter Drucker called this knowledge work. Merlin Mann simplified this by saying we bring value to information.

Bringing value to information in our work requires our brains to be functioning at their best. Too often, as you probably experience, our brains are not at our best. Quieting the negative voice in our heads could be your path to doing better work in your job and making great contributions in your family.

How we talk to ourselves is directly correlated to how productive and pleasant we will be. In other words, managing your inner voice is something you will always have to deal with and it will always impact your working mindset.

A possible solution....

Dr. Neil Fiore, author of The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play explains that many adults bring over a I have to inner voice from childhood. This “have to” voice leads to procrastination and stress. An example would be I have to do my taxes or I have to attend this event.

According to Fiore, the “have to” voice creates stress and frustration because it reminds us what it was like to be a helpless child when we could not control our schedule and assignments. The reality is, we are no longer children, and while we do have obligations to our families, job, and country, making ourselves do stuff creates a sense of overwhelm and make ourselves feel like a cog in the system.

His solution is to use a “I choose to” voice, which reminds us that we have agency, we have control, we are adults. When you tell yourself I choose to do my taxes (or whatever), you remember you have control over when it gets done and how it will happen. You may not control the deadline, but you do control how you can manage it. This can apply to other tasks in your job and family such as organizing your files, sending an email, or cleaning the toilets.

The secret to managing your inner voice is to remember it needs to be managed. Just like a good manager would do at a great company, consider how you may be able to play the role of the manger for your thoughts. Remind yourself that you have the ability to CHOOSE what to focus your attention on, you can CHOOSE what to ignore, and choose what things you will allow to loop in your brain as you operate in your daily life.

Direct statements

We all have things we wish we could come right out and say, but often don’t for our own reasons. We may want to preserve a relationship, not hurt someone’s feelings, or reveal what we truly think. We beat around the bush hoping that they might pick up what we’re trying to say. Usually, this strategy does not work.

The problem is that we want to communicate something but we have fear or uncertainty in our head or heart. We feel a sense of pause and we don’t say what we wish we could. So we either say nothing at all, aka silence, or say a bunch of stuff to lighten the blow.

Adopting a shared language

One of the tools that can help us grow as leaders and with our teams is adopting a shared language. What’s cool about working with a small group is that you can set rules for that specific set of people. While you can’t control everything in your life, organization, or larger structure, you can control your direct circle of influence. An easy way to do that is to develop a shared language that your group understands and can use when needed.

No one is going to assign you the task to “develop a shared language.” This is something that you must take ownership of and make happen the next time you gather. It’s kind of like a more serious version of an inside joke. Your group gets what you’re saying, but if you weren’t a part of that group, you might be a little confused. Of course, as your group grows, it’s important to share the shared language, just like a nice friend will explain the inside joke to you.

Shared language solutions

Brene Brown has a phrase in Dare to Lead that goes like this: “clear is kind, unclear is unkind.” This is kind of a mantra or anthem to say that unclarity is not going to be tolerated. By beating around the bush, you may think you are being kind, when in reality, your lack of clarity is damaging the group. Better to be clear about what you think than bury your true thoughts deep down inside you.

Henry Cloud in Boundaries for Leaders notes that a Fortune 500 business uses the phrase “just give me the 10%.” This is a way of saying, “can you please skip the BS?” In a situation where someone is obviously hedging around an issue, you can give them the freedom to be clear and kind by asking them to give you the 10%, or what is really on their mind.

The David Allen Company used to say “Silence means we are OK with what’s going on.” Silence can be a terrible thing to deal with in leadership and in relationships. But who said silence has to be miserable? Declaring that everyone is going to agree on what silence means helps everyone. This comes with an implicit expectation that people WILL speak up if they have an issue. Otherwise, the silence communicates approval and support. The trick is to practice this and to ask people to speak up, otherwise, their silence communities they are OK with what’s happening.

How the way we end conversations leads to confusion or action

Have you ever worked with someone who uses confusion and complexity and avoids action? Instead of figuring out the next thing to do, they talk about how big a problem is. Instead of taking action, they freeze.

I had a work colleague that used this tactic. In critical conversations, she would talk at length about many different angles of an issue. We would discuss the tensions that caused a particular problem but rarely reached a solution. She would conclude these unproductive conversations with a signature phrase “yeah, isn’t this complicated?”

Yeah, isn’t this complicated” is a way of saying, this situation is overwhelming, I don’t know what to do. It’s a way of saying, “the work we are doing takes effort, but I don’t want to do anything.”. Instead of figuring out an action plan and doing stuff, yeah, it’s complicated was a way of avoiding movement.

Avoiding movement

Avoid movement is safe. No action buys us time. We don’t have to face tensions with people and do the difficult emotional work of deciding.

Moving toward action: how to end conversations with helpful phrases

Instead of leaving a conversation confused, we should seek clarity. I like Brenee Brown’s phrase: “clear is kind, unclear is unkind.” We must define and create projects, not complain about problems. We can organize our projects by deciding who owns it, deciding who is going to take the next step, and by when. It takes a little more effort, but the end result is a much.

Here are some helpful questions that may help you end conversations toward clarity:

  1. Who owns this?
  2. How will we know if this is a success?
  3. What does success look like to you?
  4. How can I help?
  5. What do you want me to do?

There will always be opposition

Have you ever encountered someone who doesn’t agree with your point of view or see things the same way you do? I’m sure you’ve experienced the tension that lies when you have an idea but know someone is going to challenge you. This is what makes the world a beautiful place, but it can annoy us and stress us out. We can probably agree with this statement: there will always be someone who does not approve our work.

So, if it’s true there will always be opposition, how then might we adjust our behavior?

If it’s true there will always be at least one person who doesn’t like what we’re up to, what might we need to consider in our mindset and thinking?

If it’s true all people will not see things the same way we do, what’s next?

Adjusting our behavior

One of the ways we can deal with opposition is to adjust our behavior. As humans, we have the ability to change the narrative, change our thinking, and see the world differently. Some of this happens in our thinking patterns or in the invisible world. Some of this happens in the external or physical world. How we behave exists in both of these worlds.

Since there will always be opposition, make an agreement with yourself that you will not sulk or get discouraged when you hear someone who doesn’t like what you said. There will always be people who don’t get you, and you knew that beforehand! If you didn’t know that, it’s true, right? We can’t live every moment of our lives in terms of those who oppose us.

Since there will always be opposition, change your surroundings. Switch things up. You don’t have to have your desk in that dark corner. Your room does not have to be painted that color. Make a simple tweak to your surroundings to help you remember you have the ability to change your surroundings. Charles Duhigg illustrates this in his book Smarter Faster Better where he describes how members of the military were given the ability to rearrange the furniture in their living quarters. This gave each person a sense of autonomy and a deeper sense of control. You can do the same.

Since there will always be someone who doesn’t like your work, decide now that you won’t let that freeze you up. The last thing you should do is freeze up and stop making stuff. That’s what the opposition wants. Decide on the front end that you will create art. If there are people who don’t get it, as Seth Godin would say, it wasn’t for them.

Mindset and thinking questions... (Invisible world)

As you think about your internal dialogue or your invisible world, you can structure how you want to think about your work.

How much attention are you going to give the opposition? Decide before it destroys your day.

How much attention will you give your support team? Know who they are so you can run to them in emergencies.

What voices ultimately matter most in your life? Brené Brown suggests having a 1 inch by 1 inch piece of paper with the voices that are most encouraging in your life. It’s small on purpose. Let them know they are on your square and keep them close, especially when you feel discouraged.

What’s next? (Physical world)

If it’s true there WILL be opposition, Get to work. What are you waiting for?

Stop complaining. You knew this wouldn’t be easy.

Butt in chair. Thanks, Anne Lamott

Find out what inspires you — and come back to it when you’re discouraged. Keep a rainy day file.