What Your Brain Needs to Improve Focus

Really simple, really challenging.

In his book, Boundaries for Leaders, Dr. Henry Cloud writes:

“…as a leader, you are always going to get a combination of two things: what you create and what you allow…”

The ramifications of this perspective are virtually endless. For now, I’ going to focus just on self-leadership — how you lead yourself in your work and through your day. Keep in mind, though, that these principles are true at micro and macro scales, for individuals as well as teams and organizations.

Your brain is constantly trying to assess what needs your attention. From a decision making standpoint, it’s much easier to simply attend to whatever message is coming through loudest. Our brains appreciate the efficiency of that path — it requires less energy in the short-term and eliminates (at least for the time being) a loud voice. So, we often move through our days responded to these loud, urgent voices (both internal and external). But, how often is the loudest task or problem the most important? Tyranny of the urgent.

You can actually develop three skills to create clarity and focus, intentionally deciding how your valuable brain power is directed. By doing this, you can actually succeed at what matters most to you.

Coffee and croissants are not actually two of the three things.

Dr. Cloud outlines three things you can do to help your brain focus on and accomplish a goal:

  • Attend to what’s important
  • Inhibit what’s not important
  • Establish a working memory

Attend to What’s Important

  • What’s are the three most important things for you to accomplish today?This week? Based on your ideal, long-term goals, what’s most important? By understanding where you want to end up, you are actually more motivated to change short-term behaviors.
  • Why only three things? If you take on more than that, you limit your ability to be productive and effective. So identify what’s most important. Be ruthless, because “if everything is important, nothing is important.”
  • If you realize you need to shift priorities down the road — no worries! Even if you have to adjust all three, you’ve actually gained more clarity by taking action and having to adjust, rather than trying six things and getting nowhere.

Inhibit What’s Not Important

  • Set boundaries and resist the urgent, the easy, and the non-essential. We typically know what we need to do — but we get sidetracked by the fifteen emails that just came in. Or the four quick tasks that don’t require much energy, but also don’t add value to the work we want to do. We settle for mere activity because it makes us “feel” like we’re making progress.
  • The only real progress is productivity in the direction of your goal. Stop doing things that kind-of-matter. In fact, make a “to-don’t list” and be clear ahead of time about what is not important right now.
  • (I think this is the hardest part of this process. You may, too. So with a good helping of grace, keep working at it.)

Establish a Working Memory

  • Even with clear, prioritized goals and solid boundaries, we get off track. Especially early on in learning any new behavior or skill, we use a significant amount of mental energy just trying to maintain our boundaries through self-control. So we need reminders of what we set out to do.
  • We also drift slowly away from the important, not noticing that our original clarity and focus has grown hazy. So you need to put reminders in place. Set aside time every single day to review your goals and strategies. Turn on notifications to do a mental check-in halfway through your day. Put a sticky note on the coffee pot listing the three most important things you need to focus on.
  • Ask a friend, co-worker, Twitter, or even your boss to check-in once a week on how you are doing on attending to goals and inhibiting distractions from those goals. You aren’t failing if you need a reminder — you’re smarter by knowing you need to be reminded.

“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”

If you don’t like the results you’re seeing, you have to change something. Whether it’s an professional goal, an exercise habit, or a new skill — more willpower is probably not going to get you where you want to be. Otherwise you’d already be doing it.

Tweak, overhaul, experiment, practice, and try something new.

Clarify and simplify your goals. Set boundaries that eliminate distractions and avoid the kind-of-important. Keep coming back for reminders and let other people help you get there.


Adam Bouse Coaching offers personal and organizational development coaching. Leadership coaching, emotional intelligence assessments, and team training are just a few of the tools available. Get more info at www.adambouse.co or send me an email — hello@adambouse.co