By: Suzanne Bates

On a visit to a beautiful resort in Vermont this winter, our party found it far more inviting to sit by the fire in the inn than to chance the treacherous, icy path to the town shops. The place had one cozy, inviting room after another. We wandered into the library and flopped onto sofas and chairs, pouring ourselves hot cider and planning to do nothing. As the guystalked, my friend Lori and I admired what seemed like a 2,000 piece jigsaw puzzle on the coffee table. It was mostly complete except for a rather large section at the top end, mostly sky. 

We started fiddling with it and got hooked. At first, the pieces appeared nearly identical, not only in shape but in hue. It was no wonder that this was the last of it to be completed by the collective casual visitors who happened onto it. The artist had done a maddeningly beautiful job of blending shades, from periwinkle to steel, platinum, silver and timber wolf, champagne, lavender, pink blush and cotton candy. 

Lori brought a lamp closer to the table, started fiddling around and hit on a formula. She patiently began sliding pieces across the top until the hues appeared to match. Then, turning them round and round, trying to nudge them into various slots. She often had success. One piece after another began to snap into place. I followed her lead and we increased our momentum, though the puzzle still wasn’t complete when we finally tore ourselves away to get dressed for dinner. The tedium had become entrancing. I’d describe it as a meditative state. I felt as relaxed as if someone had given me a mental massage. 

Most people are by now well acquainted with the research on what a poor substitute multi-tasking is for singular focus. Although we know trying to do more than one thing at a time doesn’t work, we feel compelled to divide our focus because “we are so busy.” This is also just a proclivity of being human in a modern world. Paul Hammerness, MD, and Margaret Moore wrote in Harvard Business Review a couple of years ago that over the past decade, advances in neuroimaging and cognitive testing have shown that the human brain is quite easily distracted.  “This comes at a time when attention deficits have spread far beyond those with ADHD,” they write, “to the rest of us working in an always-on world.” Lack of focus, they say, not only slows us down, but it also makes us prone to mistakes. We are far more likely to miss important information and clues, and to get worse at problem solving, not better.  

I wonder how many billions are lost in business every year, purely because of a lack of focus. It should give leaders real pause. Personally, I am spotty on this one. I have great focus when writing; and I can without too much effort keep my mobile phone out of sight. However, my Achilles heel is being distracted by email when in my office meeting with others. Too near my computer, my eyes are drawn to it. (Note to self, turn off the computer). 

What clues am I missing as a result? What information have I not considered? What mistakes have I made simply because I lack the discipline to stay in the moment?

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