May 16, 2014
Chicago Tribune
Brian Dumaine

The “Focus Movement” is being embraced by entrepreneurs big and small. The payoff? A more productive workplace.

As you read this article, chances are your brain at some point will start sending you distracting, and familiar, messages.

“Hmm, I wonder if I have any new emails or texts?”

“What are my customers saying about us on Twitter right now? I better check!”

“Oh yeah … I’ve been meaning to read up on that new Sonos sound system on Amazon.”

If you’re still reading, congratulations! You’ve been able to overcome — at least momentarily — one of the most insidious, productivity-sapping maladies afflicting today’s managers: cognitive overload.

Business owners don’t have to be reminded how their lives are being taken over by email, texting, Facebook, Twitter, the Web, and other annoying electronic static. (That on top of the usual day-to-day tasks, such as laundry, kids, and … showers.) Email alone is overwhelming. Icebreaker, a consulting firm, reckons you spend about 28 percent of work time managing it. The typical CEO gets about 200 to 300 emails per day. Some chief executive clients of Icebreaker had banked up to 70,000 — yes, 70,000 — unread messages.

How big a problem is this? Some estimate, as you will see later, that distraction costs hundreds of billions of dollars a year in lost productivity. Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, says a worker distracted by something like a Web search gone wild or a new text popping up on the phone can take about 25 minutes to return to the task at hand. What’s certain is that the subject of digital distraction and lack of focus in the workplace is getting the attention of not only authors and researchers but businesses large and small. When Inc. called the CEOs of fast-growing companies such as Instagram, Box, and Zumba, they were all eager to be, you guessed it, interrupted for an interview. In other words: The lack of focus on the job is a big concern for them.

In fact, these entrepreneurs are part of an emerging trend. Call it the focus movement. Those three companies and other successful startups are joining corporations such as Google and SAP in a grand experiment: testing new ways to mitigate cognitive overload and put the spotlight on what’s important. At Google, employees take courses that help sharpen attention skills. At smaller companies such as Zumba and Box, the founders have devised their own methods, including putting aside large blocks of time to reflect, far from the madding crowd.

Why is focus so important to success? Academics such as Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel say the best way to understand your competition, learn from your employees, chart a long-term strategy, or innovate is to have the mental discipline to home in on what really matters to your business. Only by intensely concentrating can you link new ideas and facts “meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory,” Kandel writes in his 2006 book In Search of Memory. Simply put, if you have the presence of mind to absorb new data, trends, and events — and then synthesize them with what you already know — you will be more likely to formulate the breakthrough idea.

Juggling digital tasks certainly doesn’t help with that process. In 2009, researchers at Stanford University’s Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab gave cognitive tests to 49 subjects who spent a lot of time surfing the Internet, watching TV, and hanging out on Facebook. They gave the same tests to 52 people who multitasked significantly less often. The conventional wisdom, at the time, was that the Internet actually sharpened cognitive skills: fast-fingered gamers would make great fighter pilots and brain surgeons, the digital cheerleaders said.

But wait! To the researchers’ surprise, the heavy online users actually scored poorly. Among other things, they had less control over their attention and were much less able to distinguish important information from trivia.

“They’re suckers for irrelevancy,” says Stanford communication professor Clifford Nass, one of the researchers whose findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Everything distracts them.”

So what’s to be done?

Science shows that there’s only one near-universal strategy to improve focus — practice doing it.

Michael Merzenich, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, explains: The more you focus, the more your brain releases a chemical called noradrenaline, which helps you concentrate on the task at hand.

Says Merzenich: “If you’re constantly on alert rather than buckling down and shutting out disruptions, you can weaken the physiological processes that keep distraction under control. Simply, you can program your body to produce less noradrenaline if you never force yourself to focus.”

The first step in this focus training, some experts contend, is to understand your own cognitive processes.

Leading this camp is Harvard-trained psychologist Daniel Goleman, best known for his 2005 blockbuster book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. His thesis: self-awareness, altruism, personal mastery, and empathy are strong indicators of human success. More recently, Goleman became interested in the topic of focus. “Clarity,” he says, “begins with realizing what we don’t notice.”

In his latest book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, Goleman explores why people become distracted in the first place. In layman’s terms, he explains that the prefrontal cortex of our brain, the outer layer that controls your executive functions — concentrating, planning, and synthesizing — is in a constant tug-of-war with the deeper, more atavistic sector where your impulses arise.

Think of it as a good and bad angel sitting on either shoulder and whispering into your ears.

Once you understand that the primordial part of your brain — the mischievous part — wants you to be distracted, the challenge is to find ways to ignore that dark angel on your shoulder. Every time an urge to switch your attention arises, you need to muster the wherewithal to pull yourself back to the task at hand.

One approach to improve your concentration, says Goleman, is to make yourself aware of the three basic types of focus you apply from time to time: inner, other, and outer. Inner focus is the ability to listen to your deepest self, your “true north.” Who are you, what are your values, why are you doing the work you’re doing?

Other focus enables us to zero in on what others are saying, thinking, and feeling by not only paying attention to words, but also picking up on nonverbal signals, such as facial expressions and body language. Outer focus is the ability to look at what’s going on in the world at large, assimilating only what’s relevant to your business.

Entrepreneurship professor Steve Blank, who teaches at Columbia, Stanford, and Berkeley and has co-founded four Silicon Valley startups, including MIPS Technologies, says Goleman’s framework is perfect for entrepreneurs.

Blank says leaders who can focus inwardly have a competitive advantage: They can function in turmoil — like great generals who can see through the fog of battle. “When a company is young and growing, it can be chaotic. In the same way, a good general knows a battle never goes according to plan so he needs to have the composure and focus to do triage in real time.”

Other focus helps leaders pick up on the employee who says everything’s OK but whose body language suggests that there indeed might be a problem. Outer focus — keying into what’s going on in the outside world — fits, too. Blank has seen many startups fail because the CEO didn’t absorb and integrate external signals. Think of Research in Motion’s BlackBerry missing out on the later stages of the smartphone revolution, he says, adding that “the Apple and Samsung managers weren’t smarter, they were just focused differently … they focused on broader issues, like the importance of being able to search the Web on a smartphone.”

Then there’s the Google approach to focus. The company took the topic seriously enough to start offering a course on it in 2007, and so far has put 1,500 of its employees through the multi-hour sessions. Search Inside Yourself, as the course is called, is the brainstorm of Chade-Meng Tan, a software engineer who was Google employee No. 107. Meng, as he’s known around the Mountain View campus, came up with the idea in 2003 when he was taking a walk and suddenly knew what to do with the rest of his life: “I realized I wanted to create world peace in my lifetime,” he says. “I also realized that I couldn’t spread goodness without profits.”

Moving to the HR department, Meng, whose title now is “Jolly Good Fellow,” created a curriculum around attention and self-mastery that’s loosely based on Eastern religious teachings. The goal: to improve performance. The course has taken off, and now Meng has a best-selling book, Search Inside Yourself, endorsed by Google chairman Eric Schmidt and by John Mackey of Whole Foods Market. Two former U.S. Presidents — Carter and Clinton — and President Obama have praised his work, and the Dalai Lama hugged him on his 40th birthday.

The gist of the Search Inside Yourself course is simple: to make everyone more compassionate, which is good for business. (Treating co-workers kindly results in happy co-workers, which means more productive workers.) But here’s the catch. Becoming more compassionate, Meng explains, requires the ability to focus deeply and constantly on yourself and on those around you.

At Google, employees who take the class first spend an entire day practicing better focus. For example, when they find their attention wandering while reading, they practice bringing it back to the page.

“It’s like doing bicep curls for the mind,” Meng tells me. “If you keep bringing your attention back, you begin mastering the ability to focus, and before long, you can come to attention on demand.” Employees also learn meditation techniques to clear their heads of distractions.

Another Google focus exercise: Meng has someone speak for three minutes and then asks the listener to repeat what the speaker said. Meng says some Google employees use this technique in a work setting by saying: “What you just told me is important. Would you mind if I repeat it back to you?”

Google, of course, has a very West Coast, youth-oriented culture. Would such an approach to focus fly in a more traditional company? Well, yes.

SAP is a $23.4 billion-a-year German enterprise software company known for no-nonsense managers like Peter Bostelmann, a German industrial engineer who has been at SAP for 15 years. He has become a self-described “mindfulness ambassador.” After taking Meng’s course in San Francisco, Bostelmann decided to offer it at SAP.

Senior executives were skeptical but let Bostelmann take the idea for a test drive. So far, he has trained 75 people, and survey results were impressive. His students gave the course a 6.4 on a scale of 1 to 7. He’s now offering the course in other SAP offices. “We didn’t call it meditation,” he says. “We called it attention training. The term mindfulness sounds too touchy-feely.”

Formal courses aren’t the only way to improve focus. Some successful entrepreneurs have figured out their own ways to deal with information overload. Alberto Perlman is the founder and CEO of Zumba, the dance-exercise company and Inc.’s 2012 Company of the Year. To survive the flood of emails he gets, Perlman schedules an hour or two each day to apply what he calls the “four D’s”: do, don’t do, delay, and delegate. By taking one of these actions with each email, he can get through 150 in an hour or two, with a little help from his assistant. Next, Perlman weeds out everything he doesn’t have time to do. “I decided that I only had time for three things: family, work, and exercise, in that order,” he says. “If something doesn’t fit — like going out with the guys or doing a hobby — I don’t do it.” He also disconnects completely from work for 24 hours each week, spending each Saturday with his family instead of answering emails or fielding calls.

For some, a day away from the bustle of work isn’t enough.

Aaron Levie is the 29-year-old CEO and founder of the billion-dollar cloud-storage company Box — and Inc.’s 2013 Entrepreneur of the Year. To free up time to reflect, Levie breaks his workday in two. He spends the first half of his day, from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., in back-to-back meetings, making sure the company is running on all cylinders. He then takes a dinner break and a nap. His second half of the day runs from 8:30 or so in the evening until 2 a.m. (It perhaps goes without saying that Levie doesn’t have kids.) During this quiet time, he does deep and strategic thinking — and cleans out his inbox a bit. “The night work gives me the time to focus on emails and texts, and on setting up for the next days or weeks,” he says.

Mike Krieger, the co-founder of the wildly popular social-media app Instagram, which was acquired by Facebook in 2012 for $1 billion, took a novel pro-focus approach. When he and Kevin Systrom launched the company in 2010, he had a blanket “no meetings” policy. He turned down every request from outsiders. “A no-meeting policy,” says Krieger, “simplified life, sort of like Steve Jobs wearing the same black turtleneck each day, and it means saving lots of time by not having to decide whether or not to take meetings.” But Instagram has grown beyond the startup stage — it employs more than 50 people and now takes meetings from outsiders. And like Levie, Krieger stresses the importance of being able to focus on the long term. Two things, Krieger says, have really helped him: “I make intentional free time — marked out on the calendar as ‘Mike time’ — and then I make sure to schedule a follow-up on what it is I want to focus on.”

So is this infatuation with focus just another fad — or will it be with us for the long run?

Well, consider this. Nine years back, info-tech researcher Basex surveyed 1,000 office workers. It found that distractions cost U.S. companies $588 billion per year in lost productivity. That’s quite a price to pay to let your employees chat each other up and shop on Amazon. And the tsunami of digital distraction isn’t going away anytime soon — not in your lifetime, anyway.

Our verdict? Goleman, Blank, and the Jolly Good Fellow are really onto something.