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Focus – the key to success in a digital world?

The world around us is changing, and it is technology in particular that sits at the core of this revolution. It has fundamentally changed the way in which we navigate through our lives as humans. It has shifted the way we live, work and communicate. We are now online, available and ‘connected’ 24/7.

While this has allowed us to create a global, mobile workforce with information at our fingertips, it has brought new challenges, none so more than our ability to learn and process information. While we may have access to more information than ever before, something we seem to be losing in equal measure, is our ability to sift through the ‘noise’, and to focus. This constant connection has created somewhat of an artificial ADD. We are watching a generation emerge that struggles to focus on tasks, while they seek quick answers, are bombarded with information and flit between the myriad of devices at their disposal.

Why is this important?
I have spent the majority of my career in a development space, and I am fascinated by how people grow and develop their talents; and one thing we do know, is that people do not become experts by accident. Performance, is always an output of cognitive understanding, coaching, hard work, repetition and practice – all of which requires focus.

Daniel Goleman (the godfather of EQ), has written a book on this very subject. According to him, the very circuitry of our brains (right up into our mid 20’s), needs to develop and manage this ‘skill’ of focus, i.e. we learn how to be calm and to concentrate. The Millennial generation may argue that they have in fact mastered this, and can even focus on more than one thing at a time through their ability to multitask. Unfortunately this is a false belief. As Goleman points out, people are not actually multitasking, but rather shifting quickly from one task/activity to another, termed ‘continuous partial attention’. They are not fully present with any of the activities. This may suffice for daily living, but unfortunately does not support how the brain learns, and how we as people ultimately develop skills (let alone manage stress).

So what does this mean for us?
It means that we are facing a potential crisis. Our exciting new digital world, could in fact be sabotaging our natural ability (and need) to pay attention, in order to actually harness this abundant information, and develop enough deep understanding and skill to perform and succeed in life.

What can we do?
My belief, is that as business (and even as parents, educators etc.) we should be doing our best to prepare people for this VUCA world that lies ahead. Well maybe this ‘skill’ of mental focus, is a good place to start? Many studies have shown that focus is a significant predictor of future success. Our employees or children will not learn a new skill, let alone master it, if they are constantly distracted and their brains have not learnt how to give dedicated attention to something.

  • Goleman suggests that we should be teaching the practice of ‘mindfulness’, which is “attentiveness to the present as it is happening”. This applies to our cognitive and emotional experiences. Perhaps we should be looking to build this into our training curriculums, or wellness programmes?
  • We could also assist employees or children to find greater balance in their lives, by helping them to ‘disconnect’. Goleman again urges us to find time each and every day where we are not connected to our digital devices.
  • Corporate policies could also be put in place to support this; a perfect example being the French government who have just passed a law where it is now actually illegal to send work emails outside of business hours.

Whatever the solution, I believe that this ability to focus will be a key differentiator for successful people and companies going forward. Despite the wealth of information at our disposal, our success is still built on our ability to learn and grasp new concepts, develop skill and apply our learnings.  While the world around us becomes more complex and fast paced, it may be this ability to hone our thinking and apply mental focus that could help us thrive in this digital world.

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