Focus: The science and the benefits

Find it hard to focus? You’re not alone. But in a few simple steps, you and your boss can get clarity and create capacity for focused attention – Curt Steinhorst explains all

The science of focus 

An executive’s success is contingent on how effectively they think, prioritise, make decisions, and communicate in a complex and changing environment but the challenge is that the resource they need to do this well is the one most under assault and in most limited supply… Focused attention.  

Helping a leader monitor and manage this attention is what makes the PA role more critical than ever but why supporting your boss (often unknowingly) is nearly impossible without some understanding of brain science – in this case, the science of focus. We humans are hard-wired with two systems of attention? Each has a different purpose – let’s get to know them. 

Bottom-up attention 

The first, which scientists call ‘bottom-up attention’, responds to new stimuli – things that bring us pleasure or pain – and to which we react with joy (chocolate cake) or anxiety (house on fire). These stimuli help focus our attention – very helpful in prehistoric times when we needed to run from a venomous Megalania, but now spent too frequently on things like emails and texts.  

Our ancestors may have experienced these anxieties once or twice a day but did you know the modern office worker can get a mini-adrenaline rush every time an email requires an urgent response? And with scores of those stress-triggering occurrences every day (most of which are distractions rather than actual emergencies) it’s no surprise our brain wants to stay in ‘distraction-response’ mode, even when all the emails have been handled. That’s why, once you’re neck-deep in your inbox or swamped with texts, it’s so hard to stop. 

This form of attention is all about immediacy and makes it hard for us to focus. Its faux-urgency makes our days very busy but often we can’t say what we’ve accomplished by the end of those days.

Top-down attention 

The other system we have is the opposite. This is the function of the brain that allows us to plan by making active choices about what gets our focus, as opposed to responding to external stimuli. Someone operating with top-down attention may hear their phone beeping but decide to ignore it or turn it off while they put their undivided attention on something more ‘valuable’. This form of attention is about planning, exerting control over the future and making a difference.  

The biggest mistake that leaders, PAs, and everyone else make is to assume they can spend the first three quarters of their day paying attention to immediate needs and then switch their focus to important projects or long-term priorities in the late afternoon or evening when it’s quieter.  

While that sounds logical, it doesn’t work for two reasons. First, your brain has a finite amount of ‘attention energy’ each day and if you spend it on immediate demands (emails, meetings and interruptions) during the first part of the day, there isn’t enough left to generate quality work for the really important things later on. Second, that deep focus time has to come when you’re at a point of high energy – and for most people, that means the morning.  

How to manage focus  

This is where you can be particularly helpful. Many bosses need very little encouragement to shut their door, even during prime morning time (such as 9 ‘til 11am three or four days each week) if they know you’ll be their gatekeeper. Soon, they’ll find that the remaining hours are usually plenty to handle the other demands of the workday.  

If your boss gives you access to their email or phone, could you reinforce their protected time by addressing anything urgent that comes in? Think: “Rob, I noticed you asked Angela to comment right away on the attached document. I just want to let you know that she’s tied up until 11 and I’ll make sure she sees it then.” This keeps Rob from coming down the hall or texting Angela while she’s reconfiguring a complicated and expensive marketing plan that’s due in two days. Other means of enforcing sequestered time are do not disturb features on office communications – or a good old fashion sign on a closed door.  

PAs can find it more difficult to get deep focus time than their bosses because so much of the job is handling immediate needs for your exec. But that doesn’t lessen the expectation that you will also get projects completed on time, despite the overwhelming volume of messages, notifications, Zoom sessions, and calls coming your way.  

So, you may have to make compromises, like working on a project early from home or ignoring emails and messages until you’re at work. Then, surrender the rest of your day to on-demand mayhem. By doing this, or something like it, you can consistently make progress on larger goals. 

Here are two guidelines for you to use daily, both in guiding your boss and managing your own time. 

Getting to clarity  

One of the many roles of EAs is to help the boss think through difficult problems because, most of the time, a leader doesn’t have a ‘safe’ place to work through their rough thought process before making more public statements – or even to say: “At this moment, I have no idea what to do about this.” 

That’s where you can help your exec (and by extension, the whole team) gain a better footing – be their sounding board and help them figure out where to put their time and attention: 

  1. Get your boss to identify what matters most today. Recognise that if that list is longer than one or two items, none of them will get done. So, help them choose one thing that will benefit most from their attention today. 
  1. Do the same for yourself. That might mean picking up a task that’s on your boss’s list, or it could be something you’ve identified in your own area. Whatever it is, put that front-and-centre in your mind as early in the day as possible. 

Note that it’s more productive to be decisive about what to focus on today than it is to overthink which choice would be perfect or ideal. Just by establishing a ‘choose one thing and drive it to completion’ pattern, you will make future priorities easier to identify and complete. And whatever you choose today, remember you’ll have one less unfinished item waiting for you tomorrow. 

As you get better at this, you’ll find it also gets easier to identify things that can wait so more important things get a little more focus. You’ll find that saying “I’ll handle that this afternoon” often works to group lower priority interruptions into an after lunch bucket when they can be handled in a batch. 

Creating capacity  

One big obstacle to concentrating deeply on a priority project is that you or your exec may not have the capacity (meaning the tools, time, place or training) to handle something or get it done. This could be a failure of your facilities to support your needs, the absence of up-to-date technology to help you save time elsewhere or enough staff or expertise to handle a persistent or overwhelming need. 

Help your boss identify and correct this situation by lobbying for the resources you both need because without the capacity to do what’s most important, it’s impossible to succeed.

Final word  

As you plan the next week or month, keep in mind the two types of attention you use – the distraction immediately before you and the desire to plan and manage the future. Teach those above and around you about the difference and encourage those you work for to set aside a quiet zone for productive, uninterrupted work each day for those longer-term, future-oriented projects. Then leverage your own schedule to get some of that deep-focus time for yourself. 

Getting clarity about what’s most important is the key to organising how you use your sequestered time and having the capacity to do that work – the tools, time, and support you need for it to happen – will make or break your ability to finish important projects. 

By the way, studies show that humans are happier when we achieve more. So, if you let a little brain science guide your working day, you could be more satisfied in your job.