Leading While Distracted: 5 Tips to Better Focus

Last year I attended a Bon Jovi concert. The band was amazing, and they showed that some folks can age well and keep rocking. Most of the crowd had not aged as well as the band had, but most of us were having a great time remembering back to the first time they heard Livin’ on a Prayer (go ahead and click the link… the walk down memory lane is worth it; we’ll wait here). It had been a while since I had been to a concert, and I was more than a little surprised by how many people who paid good money to see the show spent more time on their mobile devices than actually watching the show.

I don’t begrudge the world the amazing tool these devices are, but I can’t help but wonder when we decided that whatever is on there is more important than what is right in front of us. When did we as a species decided that we are good enough at life to dedicate only a fraction of our attention to what we are doing?

The fact is that most of us, most of the time, lack the focus we need to be really effective at what we are doing.

And I don’t just mean the obvious things like driving and walking. I mean we are so distracted that we are less and less effective at most things we do, including watching concerts.

And our distraction isn’t limited to electronic devices. Ever find yourself thinking about an upcoming meeting during a meeting you are already in? Ever answer a routine text or email during a critical conversation with a subordinate who really needs your guidance? Ever miss a crucial part of your boss’ speech because you let your mind wander to that new wine bar you just discovered and how you could be meeting your friends there after work? We chalk it up to being busy, or credit our super-human multi-tasking ability to justify the fact that we really are losing our ability to focus.

By the way, cognitive scientists have long agreed that attentive multitasking is a myth.

Sure we think we are capable of doing multiple things simultaneously. It’s just fine that our days are so crammed full of stuff that we make major decisions with minimal thinking because we are scheduled in 15-minute increments. The fact is that we allow our attention to be divided among so many things that we are decreasingly capable of really focusing on our work and our lives. This makes us dramatically less effective at everything we do.

In the book Deep Work, author and Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport describes our normal work focus as shallow: we perform tasks that can be accomplished while distracted and which don’t demand a high degree of mental focus. Sadly, those are not the tasks that routinely bring a great deal of value to our work or our lives.

Most of us who live like this are confusing being busy with being productive.

Fortunately there are ways to combat our constant distraction

  1. Be present. Learn how to control where your mind wanders, and how to be more aware of what is happening around you.
  2. Focus on the important, not the urgent. Prioritize meaningful work and shut off distractions when concentrating on it (don’t even have the email app open, and turn off mobile devices). Limit your time answering email to less than an hour per day. Schedule time for deep work and protect it.
  3. Be discerning about what you allow into your mind: much of what we are presented has little value. Worse, the less valuable things are distracting us from the truly important ones.
  4. Work less, sleep more: sleep deprivation is a performance killer, and makes us easier to distract. Most work past fifty hours is dramatically less productive.
  5. Be decisive. Spend only as much time on decisions and tasks as they are worth: don’t hold a $20 thousand dollar meeting discussing a $5,000 question. Most decisions come down to drop it, do it, delegate it, or defer it. Decide and move on. Leaving issues undecided leaves them in your mind.

To a great extent, the “information overload” of today’s culture is a self-inflicted condition. We allow ourselves to be bombarded with distractions, and thus find it increasingly difficult to be fully present when we need to be. If we can clear our minds of the clutter of day-to-day distractions and be fully present in meaningful work and play, we will find more value in our work, our relationships, and our lives.


Old Jokes and Zombies: metrics that need to go away

zombie 4_My grandfather had a wonderful sense of humor. Sadly, he only knew a half dozen jokes, so we got to hear the same ones over and over. I may have inherited this trait, much to my kids’ chagrin.

One of Grandpa’s favorite jokes was about a fellow that comes upon a drunk stumbling around underneath a street light, apparently searching or something. This fellow asks the drunk what he’s looking for.

“My keys!” The drunk slurs.
“Well, are you sure you lost them over here?” inquires the helpful fellow.
“Well, no,” says the drunk. “I lost them in the alley next to the bar.”
“Well why in the world are you looking for them over here?”
“Because the light is so much better here.”

Ok. Maybe Grandpa wasn’t as funny as I thought he was when I was eight.

But this joke comes to mind far too often when I’m having conversations about corporate metrics.

I frequently get the sense that many of the things we measure have little to do with our core business. Rather too many metrics are the equivalent of our inebriated friend choosing a search location based on visibility, not on the likelihood that it will contribute to success.

In short, many of us measure what we can, not what we should.

I’m not sure why this has become so prevalent, but nearly every venue in which I’ve discussed this phenomenon I get resounding agreement from those who have suffered the tyranny of corporate metrics.

Why is that? Why is there such disconnect between what we measure and what most people think we should measure? Most of the people I’ve met who determine, track, and analyze a company’s metrics have been really bright people. Maybe we just don’t understand them.

Perhaps it’s because most of us don’t see the connection between a particular metric and our overall success. It appears to those of us who can’t connect the pieces that the corporate “counters of things” are simply channeling our key-searching friend and measuring what they can see because they lack the ability to find what really matters.

I think there are two possibilities here. First is that the metrics actually do contribute directly to our success in some way but the link between measurement and success is invisible to most of us. If that is the case, increasing communication about the why of these metrics would go a long way in motivating the workforce to help collect reliable data for that metric and for achieving positive results in that stat.

The second possibility is that we really are measuring what venture capitalist and author John Doerr calls “zombie metrics.” These are metrics that are disembodied and disconnected from meaningful life. They exist without a soul or purpose but refuse to die.

Sadly, I think the second possibility is more prevalent. I’ve sat through enough Key Performance Indicator (KPI) assessments to know that there are few cause-effect linkages between most KPIs and an organization’s overall success. I have observed hard-working employees spend countless (expensive) hours measuring things that only serve to change the color on a PowerPoint slide thousands of miles away from red to amber but have no other inherent value.

So where do zombie metrics come from and why do they persist? I think there are a couple of possibilities. Some of them, I believe, used to be useful, productive metrics whose utility have has disappeared. They are no longer relevant but refuse to Rest in Peace. I am not sure, for example, why some government agencies continue to pay to measure “leadership effectiveness” through an online test even though the results are not used to make hiring decisions. Old habit?

Zombie metrics can also arise from flawed assumptions about cause and effect. Managers rationalize that if a certain activity takes place (cause) than a specific outcome is assured (effect). If we incentivize the cause, we can predict a positive outcome. In mechanical systems this is a pretty reliable model. Unfortunately, in complex systems (like those involving humans) cause and effect relationships aren’t nearly as clean. People systems are just not as predictable as mechanical ones, and actual cause and effect linkages are really hard to nail down.

Another source of zombie metrics is akin to availability heuristic. Much like the drunk looking for his keys we measure what is available instead of doing the difficult work of determining how to measure what matters.

So, what to do?

First, determine if the metric actually provides value. Is there a real, provable link between what you’re measuring and what you are trying to accomplish? Can you communicate that link in a believable way to your workforce?

Second, figure out if it’s actually worth measuring. That is, figure out those things we are spending money measuring and compare the cost of measurement to the value of information gained by that measurement.

This means that managers need to be able to quantitatively articulate the economic value of information. I think it would surprise a lot of people to find that many of the metrics we chase have an information value somewhere around zero.

I am not suggesting that we get rid of metrics: far from it! I think leaders should always seek the best information possible to inform decisions. I just don’t want to spend any more money on measuring things that simply don’t contribute to creating value. If a metric can be reasonably tied to a value-producing decision, it stays. If we measure something only because it’s under a streetlight or if the metric resembles the Walking Dead, it has to go.


Shut up and Color! But maybe Color Outside the Lines… it’s the key to moving forward

71zauao-ael._sl1470_The Army has a saying. Actually, the Army has lots of sayings, but a really common one is, “shut up and color.” I think this is a throwback to kindergarten when teachers would implore kids to focus on their artwork in a vain attempt to gain a few minutes of quiet.

In the Army it usually means, “I understand that you don’t like the order you were just given. Go do it anyway.” Or, it is a self-imposed resignation as in “I was going to push back on this thing because it doesn’t make sense but the guy in charge was really hot about it. I decided to just shut up and color.”

Either way there seems to be a lot of crayon work going on.

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Throwing People Under the Bus… 5 Tips to a Better Office Culture

bus-thrown-under-198636530Coming out of a contentious meeting where one executive’s proposal was discussed and rejected, I overheard the dejected leader chastise a colleague for “throwing me under the bus” for disagreeing with a proposal. I’ve heard this expression for years, and have never really understood where this particular idiom came from. Is there really a long-standing habit of physically shoving people underneath urban transportation? Is this so commonplace that it has become a cliché? If the metaphorical tram is moving, this would obviously be fatal, which, I suppose, is what the victim of some public criticism feels he or she is experiencing.

And research reveals that there is a far greater threat to pedestrians than busses: light trucks and passenger cars account for far more deaths than do busses (84% of vehicle-pedestrian incidents fell into these categories), but “you threw me under a light truck” just doesn’t have the same ring to it I guess. Continue reading

Articles, Essay

Now Hiring: Interview Principles to make Better Selections

hiringHire the Best Person for the job, not just the best interviewer!

In a large, risk-averse bureaucracy there is a tendency to create processes that try to minimize risk. In our hiring process we have reduced the job interview to one that values fairness over effectiveness. Every applicant is asked the exact same questions in the exact same order. Followup questions are verboten. If the applicant doesn’t understand the question, the interviewer repeats the question verbatim.

It’s as if we don’t really want them to work here.

Our most valuable resource is high quality people. To continue our success, we must continue to find, recruit, and hire the best possible people to do the essential work we do. It is inconsistent with this goal to conduct interviews in a manner that doesn’t contribute to it. Too often, our interviews are cold, uninviting, and exhausting. We must change that.

The following principles and guidelines are helpful steps in the right direction. Continue reading


Veteran’s Day Speech 2018

Veterans Day 2018I had the honor of addressing a crowd of veterans and our community to commemorate the 100th anniversary of signing of the Armistice ending World War I. The text is printed below.

Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, I thank you for coming out today to honor those men and women, past and present who have served in our Armed Forces.

This occasion is a special one, as it was a hundred years ago today that our forces in the Army Expeditionary Force serving in France heard the news that Germany had signed the Armistice. We are a long ways from the days of horse drawn artillery and biplanes, and it is hard to imagine the sacrifices our doughboys made during that terrible conflict, or the exhilaration, relief and excitement those men and women felt just a hundred years ago today.

A year later, on November 11, 1919 President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation on the first anniversary of Armistice Day, the official end to World War I. In this proclamation, President Wilson spoke about this Nation’s contribution to the conflict in Europe. “…We were able to bring the vast resources, material and moral of a great and free people to the assistance of our associates in Europe who had suffered and sacrificed without limit in the cause for which we fought. Out of this victory there arose new possibilities of political freedom and economic concert… To us in America the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with – solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service, and with gratitude for the victory…”

That’s tough to follow

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Essay, Story

Winning and Losing to your Bureaucracy

jujitsu2This starts by knowing how the game is played and knowing all of the rules, both written and unwritten, and then either exploiting or breaking them.


I love practicing jujitsu. It is a great art and sport, and helps build flexibility, strength, endurance, and confidence. The practice of jujitsu is a journey, and very few who study the art can claim to master it. I, unfortunately am in the majority here. As a mere novice in this art I frequently find myself humbled by the speed and skill of others.

One of the people I roll with is a guy named Ben. Ben is a bit of a freak of nature as he is older than me but remains one of the biggest, strongest, fittest people in the academy. I’m probably giving up about 30 pounds when I square off with Ben, and despite what TV tells you, strength and size make a difference. The other problem I have with Ben is his jujitsu is also better than mine.

When I roll with Ben I have no illusions that I will tap him out. My goal is to survive the five minutes without getting choked out. Sometimes I make it.

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