We’re starting a new blog series about focus, attention, time management and the ways that teams these issues affect teams. In our first post in the series, we look at focus–what it is, and what it means for teams to focus together.
There’s lots of advice about time management and focus. In this age of digital technology, social media, and streaming services, we all seem to be feeling more distracted and unfocused than ever. And what’s perhaps more pertinent–we’re more anxious about it.
For some reason–perhaps it’s the sheer scale and interpenetration of the distraction in our lives, the amount of choices available, or the hollowness of some of those choices–we feel more than ever like we’re not doing what we “should” be doing. We don’t feel like we’re focusing on what’s “important”.
So time management and learning how to focus have become a burgeoning topic for self-help and personal development advice-givers. The methods for dealing with it are numerous, including meditation, goal-setting and how to set your schedule. We ourselves dipped our toes into this interesting field a little while back when we talked about how to focus while working from home.
However, one thing we’ve noticed while doing research is that most of the information about focus and attention is that it is targeted at individuals. All of this seems to be saying that only you yourself are responsible for how you focus and how much you get done.
Reasserting the role of teams
But what is the role of teams? Or families? Or communities? With so much money and research and technology working to make us distracted, why do we think that we could (or even should) do this all on our own.
Of course Invite Japan is a team building company, and so we are mostly concerned with teams. However, the fact remains that there is a distinct lack of attention to the ways that we focus and manage our time collectively.
We’re starting a new blog series for the month of August, of which this blog post is the first part. The topic is focus, attention, time management, and how to limit distractions. But we hope to take a different approach to this theme–one that emphasizes the role of teams and working together in order to focus and achieve our goals.
Because that’s what this is all really about, right? When we talk about feeling too distracted or overwhelmed by a lack of focus, we’re expressing our anxiety about not reaching our goals (or not having fulfilling goals to begin with). And when we think about focus and attention in these ways, it seems just as silly to not recognize the role that others play in developing our goals and dreams.
What are focus and attention?
Let’s review a little of what we said about attention and focus last time, because it will be very helpful going forward. While that post was directed towards hybrid and remote teams, the lessons can be applied really to any team.
What we tried to show is that distraction and focus often get attached to specific tasks, but that’s not what attention is all about. Yes, you can be distracted from doing a certain task in the moment (think of chores or errands). But really what people are talking about when they worry about being distracted is something much deeper.
The three lights of attention
According to James Williams, there are three levels, or categories, of focus and attention. He describes them in terms of “lights” (since light can guide and also draw attention):
The spotlight level of attention is what we focus on doing in the moment (imagine a big spotlight shining on one particular activity). It encompasses the level of actions and tasks, rather than larger life goals.
But like we said earlier, a lot of how we think about focus and attention usually ends up revolving around tasks, which means that our thinking about focus and attention remains at this level.
An example of the spotlight level of focus would be something like doing the dishes. When you do the dishes, you are choosing to focus on that task. The same could be said for a specific work task, like writing an email or making a presentation.
On teams, the spotlight would be individual roles and tasks–coding, writing emails, communicating with clients, etc. Teams tend to focus on these tasks, to the detriment of noticing other areas of attention.
The next level of attention is starlight. Starlight deals with larger goals and values. Think of starlight at night, which can “guide” you. Starlight can’t give you exact directions because they aren’t made for your specific life. But if you know the general direction you are going, you can use them to navigate.
Similarly, goals and values don’t give you specific ways of getting there. Just because you have a goal to become an artist or create a business, doesn’t mean that there is one way to get there.
Similarly, starlight on teams can oftentimes be hard to figure out or see. A lot of times goals are made up by someone outside the team (from a superior or upper manager). Other times, it can be harder to come with goals as a collective.
However, figuring out your goals as a team is a crucial step for establishing a firm foundation of trust and team unity (as we’ve said many times). And paying attention to starlight as a team can allow your team to make collective decisions more easily.
The last level of attention is related to our metacognition. That is, it has to do with what we know and how we know it, how we think, and our awareness of the world. That is why this level is called “daylight”–it is the light that is all around us and allows us to see the world.
This level is probably the most difficult to explain, because it is the one that we generally don’t think about. We don’t often stop to think about why we think the way we do, or how that affects the ways that we determine and work towards our goals.
But taking this step is important, especially for teams. We just wrote a whole series about ways of thinking and problem solving. A lot of the methods that we discussed then are based on certain assumptions–about how to look at problems and what is involved in thinking about them.
For example, if you assume that all problems should be solved in a logical way, you may miss ways of creative thinking. And if you always think about creative solutions, you may overlook quicker or more practical solutions. Our assumptions, some of which have been ingrained since we are young, can sometimes prevent us from seeing the whole picture, and prevent us from focusing on what is actually important.
So our focus is often based on how we think, and our thinking determines what we pay attention to. Having this in mind with your team can be extremely valuable when it comes to determining where to focus, and when to shift focus. It’s also clear that the more perspectives you have on your team, and the more styles of thinking, the less likely it is that one set of assumptions is going to take hold.
Teams help us focus
We can sum up these three levels by saying that attention and focus are based on three things (moving from the bottom up): how you process problems and challenges, what your goals are, and what your tasks are.
When stated this way, it’s a surprise that teams aren’t mentioned as much in time management and attention self-help literature. Because this is really what teams do best–bringing people together so that they can think better and work together (by splitting up tasks) to accomplish larger goals.
In other words, teams are a way (a very successful way that has been proven again and again throughout human history) of focusing our attention on goals that are beyond ourselves. When we work together, we combine all of our lights and create new ones together. But because we have other people with us, we are often more able to actually achieve our goals than we work on them alone.
This is the essential secret of focus and attention on teams. Individually we may get ahead, and we may be able to focus for a little while. But we ultimately need other people in our lives. Whether that’s our coworkers, our families, our communities, or our friends.
In the following weeks we will be discussing various aspects of focus, attention, and time management on teams. We will deal with procrastination, distraction, and how to focus teams around one goal better. But here, we have laid out our overarching thesis, which is that teams help us to focus our energy and pour it into something productive or creative. And working together for a common cause enables us to pay attention to what’s important.