Recently I watched some paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division train for deployment to Iraq. At one training site engineers had constructed a roofless house with thick walls—plywood covering stacked tires—some fifteen feet high and topped with a catwalk for observers. Working in groups of five, the paratroopers gathered by the entrance in tight formations, chest to back, each man keenly aware of everyone’s location. On a signal from the leader—usually the second man in line—the point man battered open the first door and the team rushed in.
They moved quickly and methodically from room to room, rifles shoulder high, firing disciplined bursts of three rounds at life-sized targets positioned inside. Often the muzzles of their weapons were just a foot away from a buddy. The first man in had to trust that the second man would immediately cover the other side of the room—the blind spot. Any one of them acting carelessly might have shot a buddy in the back. So, of necessity, the paratroopers’ movements were well-choreographed—quick and deadly.
When I told my wife about the exercise, she asked if I’d ever trained with live ammunition during my time in the Army, and I said I had. “What was that like?” she wanted to know. “Well, working with live ammunition flying all over the place tends to focus your thinking,” I said.
Athletes talking about focus say they were “in the zone,” that mental space where everything seems to work well, when time slows down, when all of one’s energy is aimed like a laser at the task. It’s a great state of mind, and lots of people get their best work done in that zone of peak performance. But no one simply wanders into the zone. Athletes spend years disciplining themselves and training.
In the workaday world, it can be difficult to muster the clarity of vision, the sense of urgency that soldiers get with live ammunition and athletes reach at game time. It’s even harder to get a whole team there at once. But there are some habits individuals and teams can develop to achieve greater focus for a period of time.
Set Expectations: For others and yourself. Make an appointment with yourself; let others know this isn’t the time to chat about the game; turn off email; ignore the phone. If you work at a help-desk or customer service line, this is obviously impractical, but for most of us, well, the organization can manage to chug along without us for an hour. A colleague of mine, calling someone unexpectedly, always asks, “Is this a good time to talk?”
Manage your energy: If you’re a morning person, schedule your Focus Time in the morning. Most people slow down mid-afternoon—that’s why it’s nap-time in kindergarten—so don’t expect yourself or your team to function at the highest levels then. Take breaks. Get some sleep (do this at home). Exercise—nothing blows out the mental cobwebs like some physical activity. A regular program of exercise will also help your sleep habits.
Manage your time: Chances are you cannot function at an optimum level for eight hours (if you can, you should be driving in the Daytona 500). But, if you pay attention to your energy levels, plan your schedule ahead of time and stick to it with the discipline of an athlete in training, you’ll use your time and energy to your best advantage. This discipline should extend to every aspect of your work. Stop and start your scheduled tasks and breaks on time. Be on time for meetings and end on time. Expect this behavior of others and be respectful of their time. And give your full attention to the scheduled task in front of you.
Do your homework: Do the leg work for your scheduled tasks and meetings beforehand; assemble the information and the tools you’ll need. Be organized about it. A friend of mine, for example, tends to spend the last 30 to 60 minutes of his work day preparing for the next day’s work so he can hit the ground running in the morning. Prep time, especially before team work sessions, is an investment. The ROI is better productivity.
Determine your objective: Perhaps the most important question you must answer is, “What do you want to have happen?” Have you broken your work—a project, a task, a meeting—down to its basic elements? Have you moved past peripherals to the heart of the matter? US military orders contain something called, “the commander’s intent,” which is a clear picture of the desired end-state. In his Harvard Business Review article “Moments of Greatness: Entering the Fundamental State of Leadership,” Robert E. Quinn argues that being forced to define results pushes us out of our comfort zone by getting us to think about the future. More than that, focusing on and describing the end-state (instead of first trying to identify a path from the point we’re currently occupying) opens us up to “possibilities that don’t yet exist.”
Practice self-discipline: Distractions abound in the workplace—email, voicemail, new fires that flame up throughout the day, the coffee cart rolling by—and multitasking has shortened our attention spans. But you’ll never find the zone if you’re answering email during a conference call. If the call isn’t important enough to warrant your full attention, perhaps you should have declined to participate. If you have committed yourself to a project, a meeting or any kind of work task, don’t approach it halfheartedly. Give it your all.
Develop a sense of urgency: Part of the reason dodging live bullets gives one focus is because a sense of urgency comes with the physical danger. Sometimes deadlines can create a sense of urgency, but often we find ourselves struggling to get excited about mundane tasks. There’s nothing wrong with artificial urgency:
• “We’ll break for lunch when we finish this next portion.”
• “Let’s get to this natural stopping point before knocking off.”
• “I promised to get this work done by the end of the day.”
My wife recently complained to me, “I have about a hundred things about twenty-five percent finished, and I don’t feel as though I’m doing my best work.” She said she’d fallen back into the habit of free-associating through her workday—giving small doses of time and attention to whichever obligation seemed most urgent at any particular moment. She took a day to think about her work more strategically, to prioritize, assess the requirements, and plan her time. She’s spending more time in the zone now. How about you?
SOME BACKGROUND ON ED:
Ed Ruggero, author and former soldier, helps organizations build the kinds of leaders people want to follow. His client list includes CEO Conference Europe, the CIA, the Young Presidents Organization, Forbes, the SAS Institute, Hugo Boss USA, CitiFinancial, Bovis Lend Lease, and Time, among others. He has appeared on CNN, The History Channel, the Discovery Channel, CNBC and Fox and has spoken to audiences around the world on leadership, leader development and ethics.
For more insights from Ed, please visit his blog at MyLeadersCompass.com.