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Four Simple Ways to Awaken Your Focus and Concentration at Work

Here are four ways to increase your leadership effectiveness at work by cultivating the skill of consciousness.

macro view of water droplets on leaf

I rarely get upset. In fact, I think most people who’ve worked with me would say I tend to run on a pretty even keel. That said, I do have my moments, as everyone does.

One of those moments happened a few years back when I was working as a CFO. One of my financial analysts had muffed up a very important analysis. To tell you the truth, I don’t even remember what his mistake was. But I decided I needed to give him a piece of my mind – for his own good, of course.

On my way to find this analyst, I ran into another executive at the company. He was a very insightful and tactful guy, so he immediately sensed my anger. And since he knew about the situation, he quickly figured out where I was headed and why.

I don’t remember his exact words, but I remember the message: he calmly suggested I stop and think about what I was doing. Did I really want to rake this young guy over the coals? What good would come of it? The earnestness in his eyes got my attention, quite literally stopping me in my tracks.

Once I paused and reflected on the situation, I realized that I was about to make a terrible mistake. I turned around and headed back to my office. Later, I had a more rational conversation with the young analyst – a conversation that I genuinely hope was constructive for him.

I’ve thought back to this moment many times over the years. Hearing my colleague’s admonition to consider what I was doing caused me to pause and consciously reflect on what I was doing. Until his interruption, I had been unconsciously charging forward, caught in the flow of my anger and self-righteousness.

And sadly, that behavior is all too typical in the business world. Not everyone is charging around ready to tear someone else’s head off (although now that I think about it, that’s not too uncommon, either), but in so many ways, we rarely stop to consciously consider our actions. Many of us rush through a river of email and meetings, never pausing to examine what we’re actually doing, let alone whether all the busy-ness is moving us in the direction of our – or our company’s – most important objectives.

Just this morning, in my work as a leadership consultant, I observed this lack of mindfulness over the course of an hour-long conference call with twenty or so executives at a leading accounting firm. These highly skilled, successful, intelligent business people reminded me of The Walking Dead as they sat through one PPT presentation after another, displaying no clear purpose or objective. They were just thoughtlessly going through the motions, apparently unaware (or not caring) that the meeting was a poor use of everyone’s time. When the allotted time was up, most of them simply chirped “bye everyone” or “gotta run”, and hung up, without reaching any purposeful conclusion. Presumably, they all had to rush to their next pressing engagement.

As a former CFO of large divisions of Microsoft, Novartis, and Kodak, and in my work as an executive coach and leadership consultant, I’ve witnessed this mindless behavior time and again. Almost all senior leaders tell me that the capacity to consciously focus and concentrate is vital to staying at the top of their game. Yet very few of them actually practice what they preach. In high-stakes strategy meetings or highly sensitive negotiations, many leaders tell me their attention drifts to less important matters, pulling them out of the moment.

I can definitely relate to that, and you probably can, too. The good news is that a few simple practices can help strengthen your ability to be consciously attentive in the workplace. Along the way, you’ll find that these practices increase your focus, concentration, and effectiveness – as they have for many of my executive clients.

1) Meditation

For decades, study after study has confirmed that regular meditation increases the mind’s capacity for focus and concentration. Though many Western business people long considered it too “woo-woo,” meditation is fast becoming mainstream, as executives from Sydney to Silicon Valley discover the benefits of increased mental acuity, calmness, and “presence” -- the ability to be consciously attentive. In my personal experience, meditating twenty to thirty minutes daily has a positive ripple effect on my consciousness throughout the entire workday, not just during my meditation practice.

2) White Space

When I served as CFO of Microsoft North America, my executive coach challenged me to ditch the office for a few hours each week. I’d take a walk or go for a drive, spending time alone with my thoughts and no specific agenda – a time block she dubbed “white space.” To maintain my white space without distractions, I turned off my smartphone for the duration of each white space session. At first I felt horribly guilty, but the guilt quickly dissipated as I discovered that some of my best creative thinking emerged during these agenda-less, solo excursions outside the office.

3) Spiritual Connection

Whether it’s prayer or some other practice to commune with the divine, nurturing a spiritual connection helps many people keep a more eternal perspective in a busy work world, where short-term deadlines and what-have-you-done-for-me-lately attitudes often prevail. Pondering one’s purpose in the universe, and relationship with a higher power can make even the most demanding work responsibilities seem trivial by comparison. Yet the irony is that this vast perspective actually makes it easier to focus on colleagues and work priorities when necessary.

4) Smell the Roses and Kiss the Babies

Many people find that savoring the beauty of nature, whether in its awesome majesty or delicate elegance, feeds the soul and increases awareness of one’s world. This awareness can lead to more thoughtful contemplation and focus on what matters most, both at work and at home. By the same token, expressing affection for loved ones – including those of the animal variety – can awaken our human sensibilities to the beauty of life, and respect and reverence for the people we work with. When we view the world through this lens, it’s more natural to see our coworkers as people who deserve our mindful attention.

My guess is that you often find yourself blindly going through motions that are neither mindful nor fully conscious. The question is, are you going to continue this way? What might be possible if you strengthen your capacity to show up more consciously, more fully awake? What are you willing to do, today, to build that strength? My challenge to you is to adopt one or more of the four practices I outlined above, and discover how much more effective a leader you can be when you’re fully focused. Some young financial analyst just might thank you for it.


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