NextGen Know-How: Focus and Leadership

businesswoman out of focus in background holds out hands to form a square window in sharp focus in foreground
Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CSP, CPCC Photo
Executive Coach/Consultant
Envision Excellence LLC

6 minutes

Being selective and controlling your attention are key skills of an effective leader.

Have you ever worked a long day only to feel frustrated that you didn’t get any real work done? Perhaps you dealt with constant interruptions, emergencies and issues, so you didn’t have time to make progress on your important tasks and projects. Most leaders are spending each day fighting interruptions and distractions, sitting in ineffective meetings and reacting to the problems and issues that are constantly coming their way.

A few years ago, I conducted a survey of leaders and asked what their number one challenge was at work. The most frequent response was not having enough time to get everything done. Many leaders cited that they struggled finding time to proactively manage their team, let alone get any valuable work done.

The ability to effectively plan and use your time efficiently are important skills for leadership. To be an exceptional leader, you must have time to focus on the most important areas of leadership like coaching, developing employees and getting results. This requires you to be as productive as possible with your time.

In modern society, we are constantly bombarded with information. Emails, text messages, marketing messages, blogs, social media and the internet all contribute to information overload. We feel so overwhelmed by what is in front of us that we don’t even know where to start.

Psychologists from Columbia and Stanford Universities published a study on how having too many choices impacts our decisions. They set up a display table at an upscale food market that had 24 varieties of jam. On another day, they set up the display table with six varieties of jam. Although more consumers stopped to sample jam at the display that had 24 choices, consumers who visited the display with six varieties were ten times more likely to purchase jam. When there are too many choices, people became overwhelmed and chose not to purchase. This is called “choice paralysis.”

The same thing happens in organizations today. We have so many things we can work on that we become overwhelmed and don’t know where to start. The excessive choices and demands of where to put our attention leave us feeling paralyzed, so we muddle through our day working on trivial tasks that fill up the time.

Focus is a critical leadership skill.

Focus (controlling our attention) is one of the most important skills for leaders today.
There are two components of increasing efficiency (as a leader or in any role):

  1. Clarity—being absolutely clear about what you want to accomplish. Many leaders are very fuzzy or vague about what they should be doing.
  2. Focus—the ability to concentrate on the most important (high value) task and seeing it through to completion. It takes discipline to focus this intently.

To be effective, leaders need to be clear about their goals and objectives and what they should be doing on a daily basis. People who get things done faster have clarity around what needs to get done. Learning to plan effectively leads to increased productivity, which will help you reach your goals faster and become a more successful leader.

Productivity is the foundation of exceptional leadership. All successful leaders leverage their time and resources effectively. If you can’t manage your priorities, you will never have enough time to focus on important areas like coaching, developing and strategizing.

I’ve never met a leader who didn’t say they could benefit from massively increasing their productivity.

Being a leader today is more complex than it has ever been. We have more information coming at us in one day than our ancestors absorbed in a lifetime. More information has its benefits, and it can also be so overwhelming that we feel paralyzed into not taking action. All of our electronic devices can be great tools, yet for most people they are a source for great distraction. To be highly productive, we need to go back to the basics.

The No. 1 thing you can do starting today to increase your productivity is to simplify. To simplify means to cut through all the clutter, information, resources, goals, strategies and tasks and distill them to the most important areas of focus. To work at peak productivity, leaders need to be able to control their attention, so they can create great visions, implement great strategies and execute. One study revealed that people check email on average 40 times an hour—talk about controlling attention!

You become effective by being selective.

Below are three simple yet powerful strategies for creating a foundation for peak productivity so you can focus to get the best results.

  1. Slow down to speed up. When we feel overwhelmed, our natural response is to speed up so we can get more done. Perhaps we put in more hours by staying late or working on weekends. But that doesn’t work. The solution is typically not to increase effort. It’s to work differently. When you feel overwhelmed, the best thing to do is to pause, get clarity on what is important and then put your effort towards the areas that will bring the best results. Feeling overwhelmed is often a sign that you lack clarity on where to focus in this moment. Ask yourself this focusing question: What is the most important thing I should be working on right now?
  2. Plan your day the night before. Before you leave the office for the day, take five minutes to plan the next day. This habit will save you hours of wasted time and energy throughout the day. This practice is about analyzing and prioritizing your tasks so you can create clarity. Pick your top two focus areas for the following day that relate to your most important results. Picking two priorities allows you to focus quickly on your most important tasks as soon as you start your day. Writing a to do list can be an effective way to get everything on paper, but most people miss the next step of prioritizing. Having more than two priorities increases overwhelm.
  3. Schedule productivity sprints in your calendar. Productivity sprints are blocks of time for you to completely focus on one of your priorities. This is when you close your door (or go to another location), eliminate all distractions (close email, put your phone on “do not disturb”), and intensely focus on the project at hand. It’s amazing how much you can get done when you focus completely on a project. Multitasking has been proven in many studies not to be effective. When you take charge of your time and completely focus on one important task, you will maximize your energy and effort, build momentum and get things done faster.

We all struggle at times with managing our focus. This is the reality of living in a connected, busy and complex world. As a leader, you have the biggest impact on how your day goes. Highly successful leaders understand that no one will create time for them, so one of our most important responsibilities is to take charge of our focus and energy and build in the time necessary to facilitate the best results.

Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CSP, CPCC, is a certified executive coach, leadership consultant and founder of CUES Supplier member Envision Excellence LLC in the Washington, D.C., area. Her mission is to create exceptional cultures by teaching leaders how to be exceptional. Maddalena facilitates management and executive training programs and team-building sessions and speaks at leadership events. Prior to starting her business, she was an HR executive at a $450 million credit union. Contact her at 240.605.7940 or

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