Tag Archives: focus

More on the Battle of Focus in an Information Overload Era – (with insight from McChrystal’s Team of Teams & Cal Newport’s Deep Work)

Team of TeamsIn 2011 Americans took in five times as much information every day as they did in 1986—the equivalent of 175 newspapers.
Where once an educated person might have assumed she was at least conversant with the relevant knowledge on a particular field of study, the explosion of information has rendered that assumption laughable. 

General Stanley McChrystal (and others),Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World


Surprise, surprise – we are in the midst of full-bore information overload. You are; I am; we all are.

And, plenty of the information we take in is important information. Information we need to know.

And, alas, much of the information crossing our Facebook/LinkedIn/Twitter/web site eyeball path is not worth investing time in knowing.

But, we do invest our time in such anyway.

We all knew that the amount of information we take in has greatly increased, but when you read the statistic quoted above by General McChrystal – “five times as much information every day as they did in 1986” – and, that statistic is back from 2011 (a half-decade ago!) — then I’ve got a hunch we are drowning in, being covered up by, buried under… too much information.

In Deep Work, Cal Newport reminded us that our real challenge and task is to decide in advance what we do with our intellectual deep-work-cal-newportattention. And then, stick to that advanced decision making. Set a timer; focus and read and pay attention to the intellectual content at hand. That’s the plan to combat this onslaught.

One of the reasons that I think people appreciate the First Friday Book Synopsis is that it is a focused time. Every person has a handout, and seemingly everyone follows along with the handout.. Their attention seems pretty focused for those 35 minutes or so once a month as Karl Krayer and I deliver our two business book synopses each month.

But I’ve seen quite the contrast. I’ve seen people “watching” presentations, by glancing up at a few slides, and then putting their eyeballs, and a major portion of their focus, on their SmartPhones while a presenter speaks on.

Divided attention is divided attention – and few lessons are fully taken in that way.

I don’t know how you handle your information overload. I know that I don’t always win in my fight in this battle. But, this much I know – I’ve got to find a way to choose in advance some key intellectual content, and then give my undivided attention until I finish drinking in that content (in my case, usually reading books).

In other words, if it is an information overload era, then I’ve got to become my own master regarding what information I take in, and when, and how.

OK – blog post finished. Now it’s time to read. I’ll set my timer, and then after that focused time, after an immersion in the content of a good book, I’ll get back to checking my email, and make a call or two, and maybe even watch a cat video…

Charles Dickens, Twyla Tharp, Steve Jobs – Focus; Focus on the Core, the Spine

The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark:  random and chaotic, feverish and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent or definable end in sight.  There is nothing yet to research.  For me, these moments are not pretty.  I look like a desperate woman, tortured by the simple message thumping away in my head:  “You need an idea.” 
You need a tangible idea to get you going.  The idea, however miniscule, is what turns the verb into a noun – paint into a painting, sculpt into sculpture, write into writing, dance into a dance.
…Spine, to put it bluntly, begins with your first strong idea.  You were scratching to come up with an idea, you found one, and through the next stages of creative thinking you nurtured it into the spine of your creation.  The idea is the toehold that gets you started.  The spine is the statement you make to yourself outlining your intentions for the work…  If you stick to your spine, the piece will work. (emphasis added). 
Twyla Tharp — The Creative Habit:  Learn it and Use it for Life (A Practical Guide)


Charles Dickens

I was listening to NPR the other day.  It was the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens.  Any author that receives a segment on his 200th birthday (plus a birthday party at Westminster Abbey) qualifies as a significant author.  But we didn’t need NPR to tell us that.

In the midst of the story by Linda Wertheimer (Dickens At 200: A Birthday You Can’t ‘Bah Humbug’), this paragraph jumped out.

Novelist Jennifer Egan is a fan who came back to the books and unexpectedly found that Dickens felt modern.
“The way that Dickens structured his books has a form that we most readily recognize now from, say, the great TV series, like The Wire or The Sopranos,” says Egan. “There’s one central plot line, but then from that spin off all kinds of subplots. And so he would go off in all sorts of directions and create these amazing secondary characters who would go in and out of focus. But then there was also this sort of central spinal column of a plot that he would return to.”

“This sort of central spinal column of a plot…”  When I heard this, I remembered the section about “spine” from Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit.  To Tharp, you need an idea!  And then, that idea has to be attached to the “spine,” and the “spine” is what centers the piece, centers the project, centers the “idea.”

This idea of “spine” reminds me of the Steve Jobs decision, upon his return to Apple.  Apple had too many products in the pipeline.  They were too unfocused.  They had lost their spine.  Jobs got rid of practically every project except the core two or three.  Jobs helped them re-find and remember their spine.

Call it backbone, but don’t think just of courage; think of connection to the core, connection to the central idea.  Consider the dictionary definition of spinal column:  “constituting a central axis or chief support.”  Everything is connected to, and supported by, the spinal column.  You can’t have a body, a structure, a company without that central axis or chief support.

The word spine is also the word used to hold the pages of a book together.  No spine, no book – just a loose connection of pages.

Business books use many words to describe this concept:  focus; core product…  but here is the clear principle:  have a solid, sound, unshakeable core.

In the devotional classic, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the main character, Christian, is trying to cross the river.  The water is moving rapidly; the water is rising, and he is about to go under. But Hopeful calls out from the midst of the same dangerous river:

Then they addressed themselves to the water, and entering, Christian began to sink, and crying out to his good friend Hopeful, he said, I sink in deep waters; the billows go over my head; all his waves go over me.
And Hopeful calls out:  “Be of good cheer, my brother, for I feel the bottom, and it is sound.” 

“Feel the bottom.”  Get the spine right.  Get the core product, the core principle, the core service right.  Don’t go off chasing anything that is not utterly connected to your core – your spine.

Dickens, and Tharp, and Jobs, and Bunyan had it right.

What is your spine?

“A Citizen-Centered Organization” – Thoughts on the Importance of Focus

“We are a citizen-centered organization.”
Lynda Humble — City Manager, Rowlett, Texas


Focus…  What are you “centered on?”  This may be the first lesson in business success.  You have a better chance of accomplishing what you focus on, and little chance of accomplishing what you don’t focus on.

Lynda Humble of Rowlett is clear about her focus, and she is constantly pointing her people to that focus.  “We are a citizen-centered organization.”  Clear.  To the point.  And if this is truly lived out, this is the corrective needed when people go off track.  (And people will go off track!)

Cities, and companies, and organizations, can focus on many things.  And whatever gets the focus gets the attention, the resources, the innovations, the upgrades – and the loyalty and possible gratitude of the “customers.”

If you are a city government, then focusing on the citizens seems like the right call.  But many cities lose this focus.  The pull of the universe is a pull to get us all off focus.  We have to resist that pull – all the time!

So what are you centered on — what is your focus?  When you are  pulled away, how do you get back (to) your focus?  These are not unimportant issues…

Clarity; Focus; Definition; “What kind of company do you want to be?” – observation/insight from Farhad Manjoo

The incoherence, I think, is a sign of something deeper: Research in Motion doesn’t know what kind of company it wants to be.
Farhad Manjoo, What on Earth Happened to BlackBerry?:  Research in Motion’s new tablet is a misguided mess.


I know practically nothing about technology.  I use a Mac, an iPhone, and I’m on a waiting list for the iPad 2.  These are made for a non-techie like me.

But I like to read Farhad Manjoo on Slate.com.  He teaches me, enlightens me, and though he must be some kind of techie genius, he writes in language I can understand.

In an article on the current state of Research in Motion (Blackberry), this quote jumped out at me:

The incoherence, I think, is a sign of something deeper: Research in Motion doesn’t know what kind of company it wants to be.

Of course, it reminds us of Peter Drucker’s famous first question:

“What is your business?” 
(Drucker’s other two questions:  “Who is your customer?  What does your customer consider value?”)

Clarity; focus; definition.  These are not “modern,” innovative” concerns.  These are always absolutely required for business success.

What kind of company do you want to be?  Start there, and start building. And if you ever forget this — if you can’t answer this in a crisp, short, coherent, sentence — then it’s time to start over.

You Get What You Pay Attention To — Consider Brazil’s Focus on Extreme Poverty

I have written before about this simple concept:  you get what you pay attention to.  (read this earlier blog post).  I am convinced that this is as true a maxim as you can find.  What gets attention determines the areas in which progress is made.  What is ignored goes downhill…  pretty quickly.

My friend, Larry James, is a genuine expert on poverty issues.  The CEO of CitySquare (formerly Central Dallas Ministries), Larry has a terrific blog.  (Larry James Urban Daily:  read it here).  In a recent post, he excerpted an article about the fight against poverty in Brazil.  Here’s a key portion:

Today, however, Brazil’s level of economic inequality is dropping at a faster rate than that of almost any other country. Between 2003 and 2009, the income of poor Brazilians has grown seven times as much as the income of rich Brazilians. Poverty has fallen during that time from 22 percent of the population to 7 percent.

Contrast this with the United States, where from 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the increase in Americans’ income went to the top 1 percent of earners.

Dilma Vana Rousseff, a Brazilian politician of Bulgarian origin, has formally been inaugurated as Brazil's 36 President.

Why is Brazil making such progress in its struggle against poverty?  Because… this is what they are paying attention to.  The people at the top pay attention to this problem – with serious focus.
Consider this portion of the inaugural address from the new President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, delivered Saturday, January 1, 2011. (find the full text here:

My Dear Brazilians,
My government’s most determined fight will be to eradicate extreme poverty and create opportunities for all.
We have seen significant social mobility during President Lula’s two terms. But poverty still exists to shame our country and prevent us from affirming ourselves fully as a developed people.
I will not rest while there are Brazilians who have no food on their tables, while there are desperate families on the streets, while there are poor children abandoned to their own devices. Family unity lies in food, peace and happiness. This is the dream I will pursue!
This is not the isolated task of one government, but a commitment to be embraced by all society. For this, I humbly ask for the support of public and private institutions, of all the parties, business entities and workers, the universities, our young people, the press and all those who wish others well.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff at her inauguration

What do you pay attention to?  Whatever it is, it is likely that that is the area where you will make the most progress.

You Get What You Pay Attention To – Consider the Astonishing Safety Record of the United States Air Force

(personal note:  be sure to read to the bottom of this post for a “personal” note)

(1935 – re. the Boeing Model 229, the B-17, the “Flying Fortress”) — The test pilots made their list simple, brief, and to the point – short enough to fit on an index card, with step-by-step checks for takeoff, flight, landing, and taxiing.  It had the kind of stuff that all pilots know to do…  With the checklist in hand, the pilots went on to fly the Model 229 a total of 1.8 million miles without one accident.
The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande

I know nothing about flying.  I only know this – if I’m on a plane, I want to walk out on my own two legs at approximately the time I was scheduled to arrive.  But after reading The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, I have a little more appreciation for the job it takes to keep airplanes traveling safely.  So, I read this article with interest: Safety Against the Odds:  Despite its futuristic arsenal and high-stakes missions, the United States Air Force had a safety record in 2009 that approached perfection. The truth is, zero accidents is precisely the goal, by Robert Goyer.  It is from Flying Magazine, apparently the magazine for the industry.

Here are some excerpts:

The e-mail we received here at Flying from “Scroll,” chief of aviation safety at the United States Air Force Safety Center, was a little hard to believe. “Last year (Fiscal Year 2009),” the e-mail read, “was the USAF’s safest year in aviation safety, with 17 Class A Aviation Flight Mishaps for a 0.8 rate per 100,000 flying hours.”

Somehow, the Air Force seems to have hit upon a formula for safety that last year approached perfection.

Just how good a rate is 0.8 per 100,000 flight hours? It’s, in a word, remarkable. The rate compares favorably with the fatal accident rate for general aviation, which is around 1.17 per 100,000 hours. Remember, most of the Air Force’s Class A Mishaps don’t involve fatalities, and many of them don’t involve injuries.

The more pertinent figure from GA, the overall accident rate, in 2008 was 7.1 per 100,000 hours, which is approximately nine times that of the Air Force’s mark. In fact, the Air Force’s safety record for 2009 compared favorably with every segment of civil aviation in the United States (based on 2008 figures) except for the scheduled airlines. Scheduled Part 121 flying, as one would hope, is considerably safer. Then again, the airlines aren’t flying high-speed, low-level training missions through mountainous terrain.

While 2009 was the safest year on record for the Air Force, the trend of safety is not new. Since the early part of the new century, accident rates have been lower, substantially lower, than historic trends have been.

Every Airman a Safety Officer:  I went to Albuquerque to discover the secret of how the Air Force has achieved such a remarkable safety record. I came away understanding that there is no secret. It takes a commitment to safety and all that that implies from the top down.

Every person I met at the Safety Center seemed to believe that safety is a dynamic, ongoing process that requires everyone involved to take an active role in the safety process. And it has worked. The results are quantifiable. While it’s unrealistic to expect that general aviation can cut accidents to the level the Air Force has attained, there’s surely much we can learn, starting with the belief that safety requires hard work, a good look in the mirror and the belief that one person can make a difference. The results of those attitudes have paid off for the Air Force, and its safety success can be measured not only in dollars and cents, but also, and far more importantly, in fewer lives lost.

First, the lesson.  You get what you pay attention to.  The Air Force clearly has a team of people who pay very careful attention, over the long haul, to safety.  It is a life-saving, money-saving focus.  One they have gotten very good at.

Flying's Robert Goyer (far right) is welcomed at the Safety Center by (l-r) Lt. Col./Dr. Karen Heupel, chief of human factors; Maj. Gen. Frederick F. Roggero, chief of safety; and Col. Sid Mayeux, chief of aviation safety.

Now, the personal.  The e-mail to Flying Magazine came from  “Scroll,” the chief of aviation safety at the United States Air Force Safety Center.  When he was just a kid, he went to an air show put on by the Confederate Air Force (flying vintage World War II planes) in Harlingen, Texas.  He announced to his family that he intended to become a pilot.  Well, he did.  He has participated in fast and dangerous missions in conflict zones, and now he has put his focus on safety world-wide.  He is also my brother, Colonel Sid Mayeux.  Congratulations on your safety accomplishments, Sid.