How to Maintain Focus in a Chaotic Environment

How to Maintain Focus in a Chaotic Environment

By | November 10, 2023

Knowing how to channel focus is a crucial competency for an executive. For leaders, even relatively calm days are characterized by competing priorities.

Unfortunately, most leaders struggle to maintain focus in times of uncertainty and chaos. In fact, 68% of leaders in a recent survey said they were having trouble adapting to rapid change. And leaders who focus on the wrong priorities can put their companies in peril.

Luckily, focus is a trainable skill. In this article, we will look at two effective and sustainable ways to manage your focus and energy for any situation.

36 %
CEOs spend 36% of their time putting out fires
59 %
59% of CEOs' focused work is in blocks of an hour or less
72 %
CEOs spend 72% of their time in meetings

Channel Your Focus Using Prioritization

Prioritization is about limiting your focus to the tasks that truly matter. In addition to the countless tasks that require their attention, leaders face a barrage of distractions — daily emergencies that require their immediate attention. Leaders must be able to separate the signal from the noise to determine which tasks to prioritize and which to forgo. There are many factors to consider, such as:

  • Potential gain from completing a project
  • Amount of effort required
  • Amount of resources needed
  • How it compares to other projects in terms of timing and difficulty

Ways to Determine Priorities

But, balancing these considerations for every decision can be difficult for a busy executive to do, especially if you’re new to a strategic leadership role in which prioritization is more necessary. Fortunately, there are a few heuristic models you can follow to help. You can use the following three models to guide your prioritization process:

3 Models for Determining Priorities

The Just Say “No” Model of Prioritization

The just say “no” model of prioritization is the simplest of all three. You’re simply dividing tasks into two categories: (1) do it now or (2) do it later. Apple CEO Steve Jobs put it best: “People think focus means saying ‘yes’ to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying ‘no’ to the hundred other good ideas that there are.”

The Triage Model of Prioritization

With the triage model, you prioritize based on urgency. It involves sorting tasks into three general categories:

  1. Those that require your immediate attention
  2. Those that can be deferred to another colleague
  3. Those in the middle that aren’t immediate but worthy of your attention

The Eisenhower Priority Matrix

The Eisenhower priority matrix a 2×2 matrix that measures tasks based on two spectrums: urgency and importance. This allows you to categorize tasks into four categories, the gist of which are as follows:

  1. Urgent + important = do now
  2. Urgent + not important = delegate
  3. Not urgent + important = schedule, do later
  4. Not urgent + not important = delete

Remember, these are heuristic models–rules of thumb–that you can use to help you sort the never-ending list of tasks leaders face each day. They’re not definite calculations but rather approximations and estimates. However, they’re helpful tools for determining the tasks that deserve your focus.

Direct (or Diffuse) Your Focus Using the Spotlight Model

The spotlight model of attention compares our ability to focus to a beam of moving light. Whatever we have our sights on gets priority in our mental processes. And, like light, we can diffuse our attention at the cost of intensity. What this means for you is that you can focus on many things at once as long as none of those tasks demand your full powers. But the more you try to diffuse your attention, the worse your focus will be on any one responsibility.

If the task is demanding enough, you may lose your peripheral vision and become unaware of the world around you. For example, if you’re heads down in an engrossing task, a colleague could walk in and out of your office without you noticing.

Some tasks allow you to split your attention during specific tasks without affecting productivity. You can probably listen to music while copying and pasting data records from one document to another with no drop in efficiency. However, the same music playing while you’re trying to make an important decision would be far more distracting.

How to make the spotlight model work for you

What you can do with this information is make informed decisions about how and where you try to complete different types of tasks. Some activities require more focus and brain power than others due to the nature of the task.

  1. For work that requires precision, you need a narrow spotlight of focus. Think of it as tunnel vision. This could include tasks like preparing your department’s budget or putting together a deck for a coming board meeting. These tasks require your full attention to prevent distractions and avoid errors. Try to get these kinds of tasks out of the way early in the day when you’re sharper, and don’t try to multitask while doing them.
  2. For creative or analytical tasks, you can diffuse your attention more. Creative and analytical tasks include creating a mission statement or analyzing marketing metrics. These tasks need a much looser and more flexible amount of focus to allow more innovative and imaginative ideas to flow freely. These are the types of projects to pursue in a more distractible headspace or chaotic environment. The ambient noise that was once a distraction could prove an inspiration.

Many tasks fall between these two extremes. These require a balance between honing in on the task at hand and keeping your mind open to new ideas and possibilities. The focus spotlight is also different for each executive and leader. So, it’s up to you to determine which tasks require your deep focus and which allow you to increase your mental scope.

Focus is a Key Leadership Skill

Channeling your focus based on prioritization and attention spotlight will help you navigate concentration issues through any environment – chaotic or not. Effectively managing your time and energy is a valuable and powerful leadership skill for an executive.

Staying focused through any situation not only helps you but also your team. Your versatility and resilience during uncertain times could spread to your staff and employees, increasing productivity and morale. When you are a more focused leader, everyone wins.

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