615: How to Build Laser Focus in an Age of Endless Distractions with Curt Steinhorst

By October 19, 2020Podcasts

 

 

Curt Steinhorst says: "Distraction at its core is confusion about what matters."

Curt Steinhorst reveals why we often struggle to take control of our attention—and what we can do about it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Surprising statistics that illustrate our level of distraction 
  2. The essential keys to accessing flow state
  3. How to improve your focus in three steps 

About Curt

Curt Steinhorst is the author of the bestselling book Can I Have Your Attention?, an expert on focus and distraction, and a regular Forbes contributor on Leadership Strategy. 

Diagnosed with ADD as a child, Curt knows intimately the challenges in keeping the attention of today’s distracted workforce and customer. Through Focuswise, the company Curt founded to help teams solve the problem of chronic distraction, Curt and his team apply the science of how the brain works to the reality of how we function in today’s world. 

He coaches founders and CEOs of multi-billion-dollar brands on how to effectively communicate and create focus when they speak to audiences, lead their employees, and engage their customers. His worldwide speeches and training have helped thousands gain the wisdom and practical habits to better manage their focus and put it on the things that really matter in life and work. Clients include Southwest Airlines, Deloitte, JPMorgan Chase, NIKE, and SAP, just to name a few. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Curt Steinhorst Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Curt, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Curt Steinhorst
I’m excited to be here, Pete. Thanks for the invitation.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom, and much of it is captured in your book Can I Have Your Attention? But, I understand, when it comes to you reading books, you love fantasy novels. What’s the story here?

Curt Steinhorst
I’m a nerd, really. No. So, I have always enjoyed this weird genre that is fantasy novels, and then Game of Thrones came out and revealed to the rest of the world that it’s not all Bilbo Baggins. Honestly, I have this part of my world where I work really hard, and then focus on the research, and what’s happening in trends in the markets, and workplace trends. And then I have this other side where I want to turn off my brain, and I want to just think about a world that’s not here. And so, fantasy novels are really awesome for that.

Pete Mockaitis
So, then, tell me, what makes a fantasy novel a fantasy novel per se? And what do you think is, like, the core stuff of it that makes it so engaging for folks, such that some of them are like 12-plus books deep in a series, and folks read them all cover to cover, front to getting to the end? What is it that glues people like yourself?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, I think it’s the same thing, I think, that makes anyone love any great story. And, officially, fantasy novels take place more in the medieval times where there’s swords and then there’s some form of magic, which sounds super nerdy. My wife thinks that I’m crazy to love it. But what makes them powerful is really great characters that have complex challenges.

And it turns out, when you release some of the great creatives in the world to not have to be constrained by the same parameters that are our world is constrained by, what you find is that people are really, really great at imagining things that are fascinating, and interesting, and make you think you enjoy the story just like you would any great story.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that is cool. And I think that I am thinking about sort of the hero’s journey stuff, it really seems like that is just…like, fantasy just plays into that dead-on it seems, but from my limited experience.

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, it’s funny. If you’re looking for something that’s fun and that is a healthy escape, they’re really just incredible stories. So, I didn’t know I was going to promote fantasy novels, but there are some great ones out there. The Lightbringer Series by Brent Weeks, Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive, these are just some of the best novels out there.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, a few people know that the very first guest on How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast, Mawi Asgedom, he’s famous for a lot of sort of social and emotional skills development and communication things, but he also wrote a fantasy novel for The Fifth Harmony, The Third Harmony? oh, don’t tell him.

Curt Steinhorst
I’m going to have to get it.

Pete Mockaitis
So, yeah, anyway, we’re talking about how fantasy novels have done an amazing job of capturing people’s attention for long stretches, but I understand that the world of focus and attention, here and now, Curt, isn’t so rosy. We are besieged by distraction. Can you paint a picture for just how bad it is right now?

Curt Steinhorst
Well, there’s two levels of bad news on this front. And one is what we’ve been experiencing over the last decade, which is this assault on our attention in, literally, endless ways. So, on average, you have 4,000 to 7,000 advertisements put in front of your face every single day, and $375 billion will be spent to get your attention. And, of course, there’s no safe place because the technology, it allows us to go anywhere and be reached.

And so, we get a lot of stuff for free, which is exciting, at Facebook and Yelp! and Google. And then we fail to realize that they’re actually charging us, and they’re charging us and our attention. And so, the challenge is that it doesn’t stay with us just when we’re at home or at any place. It really comes into work, and we end up in a situation where the volume of messages coming at us, the number of meetings that we’re expected to attend, the people outside of work who can reach us, put us in a place where we’re going back and checking our phones 150 times a day.

We, on average, stay on the same screen for 40 seconds at a time when at work. And if you have Slack or you have Microsoft Teams on a second screen, that number goes down to 35 seconds. So, needless to say, we’re really, really good at flipping based on all that’s coming at us. Unfortunately, that’s the one thing that will keep us from being able to do what we need to do to be able to thrive.

Pete Mockaitis
Curt, I love you dropped those numbers. It shows you’re a man who’s done your research, and that’s why we hunted you down. So, I’m excited to dig into all the more goodness here. So, that’s striking, 4,000 to 7,000 advertising messages every day, 150 times a day phone picks up, and 40 seconds average time. Yeah, that paints a picture in terms of attention and focus being scattered all over the place. And it’s tough.

I remember, so right now, the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma is pretty hot, and I enjoyed it. I think there are some good truths to be gleaned from it. So, the term that really struck me is that we refer to our phone as a digital pacifier that we pick up whenever we’re the slightest bit uncomfortable, like, “I’m a little bored.” And that kind of spooked me a bit, like, “Ugh, I guess I kind of do do that. And I’d like to…” Do-do, pacifiers. I’ve got toddlers.

So, what’s the consequence of this? It’s a lot. A lot of phone pickups, a lot of advertising messages, a very short window in which we’re kind of looking at our screen, but is that fine, Curt? Is that, “Hey, man, life in 2020”?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah. And The Social Dilemma did do a really great job of exposing some of the challenges, specifically, the adversarial technology, meaning technology that has different interests than we have, can have on us individually, and even deeper on society. I think the core challenge that we face, and there’s all sorts of quantifiable ways at work that we can show, the financial implications, the engagement implications, the tendency that people have to do less work and feel more overwhelmed.

But I think the core challenge, and what I really appreciated about The Social Dilemma is it spotlighted that we are losing control of what actually shapes and defines every single thing about our future, which is what gets our attention, what keeps our attention, how do we take control of our attention. And so, I think that’s the core consequence because you lose control of your own attention, and you lose control of everything.

Pete Mockaitis
You lose control of your attention; you lose control of everything. Yeah, I buy that, because instead of getting the results and outcomes that you really want and care about are important too, which would come from dedicated devotion of your attention to those pursuits, you sort of get whatever the algorithms have determined you should care about, and you get hooked into.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. The analogy that I would use is that we are in an ocean which has become a perfect storm. The pandemic, of course, just added an entirely new dimension, and we’re not going to be able to get out of that. And I think, so often, what we see when people immediately hear, “Oh, you think about focus and attention and distraction. Oh, I feel bad. I’m on my device when I shouldn’t be.” And it’s like that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Technology, being distracted isn’t being on your phone.

In fact, I was walking through an airport, and someone had heard me speak, and they walked up. I was texting my wife while walking to the gate, and they said, “Hey, aren’t you the distraction expert? Caught you. You’re distracted.” I was like, “You nailed it. I am distracted by you. You are distracting me.”

Pete Mockaitis
“Yeah, I was crafting a beautiful note to my bride.”

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right, exactly. So, distraction at its core is confusion about what matters. And we’re living in a world where we’re increasingly confused because there are so many things screaming “This matters.” And so, we end up like a raft in the middle of a stormy ocean with no control rather than having the toolset to navigate within the world we live in to still assert control and, therefore, have the ability to get to a particular place.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so lay it on us, how do we pull that off? You zero in on four key elements that affect focus. Is that where we should start? Or how do you want to tee us up?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, I think the number one place to start is just by actually realizing that time is not your most valuable resource. Your most valuable resource is your attention. And so, I know that seems like, “Okay, we’ve already talked about that.” But how often do people really think about, “What’s getting our attention?” Like, when you woke up this morning, not, “What did you do?” Maybe you went on a jog. But it’s, “What did you think about?” Or maybe I’m optimistic, maybe you thought about your attention was, “I need to do a job,” but you didn’t do it.

So, it’s the thing that fascinates me at its core is like, “How do those decisions get made?” because I think where most people naturally go when they hear, “I’m distracted,” or they feel like they’re inefficient, they need to be more productive, which are downstream effects of being able to manage our own attention, being able to focus, is they go towards things, lifehacking tricks, that, for me at least, when I started this journey into the research over a decade ago, they worked great for me tomorrow but, at the time, they didn’t work at all. And it’s like, I just kept having perfect advice that I couldn’t execute on.

And so, the reasoning for that is because we actually don’t understand what human attention is for, and what we’re able to do and not do. And so, I would start by saying, like, “I’m going to value my attention and know that everything comes from that.”

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, okay, so that point about those hacks, they work great for you tomorrow, by that do you mean you don’t yet have the fundamental core in place such that those can amplify your effectiveness, and it’s sort of like the cart-before-the-horse type situation?

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. We will seek quick tips which, by the way, are super helpful. They’re really important. I’m going to give several that I think are important. But we do it without really understanding, like, “What is it that’s driving underneath this? What is it that keeps me from actually doing those things?” So, there’s no strings, there’s no endless amounts of things that we can do. Bundle your email. Don’t check your email all the time. But people still do it. And I think the thing that I would say is, “Okay, so let’s change the equation to really understand, like, how I make decisions about my attention.”

And so, a couple huge mistakes. Number one, people don’t understand that their attention is always going to be driven by social influence, meaning other people, what they pay attention to. Like, I could be perfectly focused but if the person sitting next to me has different ambitions then I’m never going to get my work done. So, like, we have to say, “Okay, how do I change the equation in such that it doesn’t cost me more attention than I have when I’m trying to find ways to create more space so I can focus on what matters?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think that’s huge. And, like, you really have to be in a pretty hardcore sense of isolation for those effects to not matter much. I think I’m just lying to myself, when it’s like, “No, no, no, this is my objective, and I’ve determined it, and this is the schedule. And, thus, this is what shall be.” But, in practice, no, my dear wife or advertiser or somebody needs something now, and here we are.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. And maybe if I were to say it’s really simply, often the great suggestions and strategies that we try to incorporate, they cost us the very thing we have the least of. So, like, “I’m going to implement a new project management system. I’m going to change the way I do my morning every morning. I’m going to do a gratitude journal. I’m going to do all of these things.” But the reason that we can’t is because we’re tired, and it’s because we have a lot on our plates, and it’s because that takes work. So, it’s like, maybe let’s think about how we do this in a way that we can actually get it done with our attention in mind.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so let’s get right into the core then, and it might take a while but I think it’s well worth it. So, you’re pointing to something bigger than the tips, and the tricks, and the hacks, and the strategies, and the tactics, to kind of fundamentally how do we go about determining what gets our attention? And I guess, for many of us, the answer is probably like, “I don’t know/It’s not that clearly defined.” So, lay it on us, like, how do we do that? Like, what are the main maybe archetypes, or modes, or flavors by which this happens?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah. And this is where it gets really fun, and there’s a lot of different frameworks that we can use but I’ll use a really simple one. You have two systems of attention in your brain, and one system of attention is more based out of your right hemisphere, and we would call it bottom-up, or right hemisphere attention. It’s complex. This isn’t the same as right brain, left brain pseudo-science. Then there’s another system of attention that is more top-down is what it’s called, and it’s more based in the left hemisphere.

And so, the right hemisphere is the baseline system of attention. Here’s what I mean by that. Right now, there’s literally endless things that are screaming for your attention. Like, you could be paying attention to this podcast, you could be paying attention to the football game that’s on, whatever, you have endless options.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s hot in here.

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, it’s hot. Exactly. And we flip. We’re constantly flipping. But most of it, it hits the right hemisphere first, and what you’re looking for is two things, “Is that thing going to kill me?” So, I am, primarily, like anytime, something is perceived as acutely threatening. Meaning, “Whatever that is could hurt me, I will focus on it,” and that’s when it flips into the other hemisphere, and we give nothing else our attention. Everything else disappears.

And so, the first thing is pain, fear, anxiety. Now, why it’s really important to realize this, is because this is exactly what makes technology so complicated because technology brings things that are far away and makes it feel right here. And so, all of a sudden, we can spend our whole day saying we want to get more work done, we want to get focused. Well, what inputs are coming your way that make everything feel extremely threatening?

There was a fascinating research that was done after the Boston Marathon bombing, and they looked at the stress and trauma levels of people that were at the scene of the crime, of this tragedy. Then they compared it to people who consumed media about it. And the acute stress levels were higher in those that were watching it than those that were there.

And so, that tells us, like when technology brings something to us, we perceive it wrongly, so our attention is always going to go towards stress. And the other thing, and I’ll pause after this one when it comes to our right hemisphere, is then we’re also wired to seek out new fun things, things that our past have said, “That is interesting. Every time I go there, it feels good,” or, “I have no idea what that is.” It’s new, it’s interesting, that’s why I’m always like, “What else could be on Twitter? What else could be here?” because you’re wired to explore. Your brain is made to go in search of things that are interesting.

So, that’s the foundation for what drives our attention, “Is it interesting? Is it threatening?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well-said. Interesting. Threatening. Nice summary. So, when you say bottom-up, you mean in terms of just like there’s a stimulus, and, “Brrp,” as opposed to, “Here’s my masterplan, and I am enacting it.”

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. Yeah, it starts in the brain.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, yeah, that’s handy there in terms of threats, pain, fear, anxiety, and the novelty. And, well, I guess that’s why the news can really suck you in because it’s always new. By the definition, it’s the news. This is something that has happened recently that you probably are not aware of because it’s all across the world. And, by the way, it could be threatening you in terms of if the election outcome you find to be threatening, one way or the other, or COVID, or any number of natural disasters, or economic crisis. Yeah, that’s a real potent double whammy there. The news hits you both.

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah. And we’re seeing like a 79% increase in the amount of time people are spending checking news through digital channels. And so, like, why is this so important? Because we pay attention to what matters the most at any moment, and we say, “How do I get more work done? How I get more focused?” Maybe not a lifehack, it’s more of saying, “Okay. Well, you’re not going to focus on something that has to do with work if you don’t know that it matters a ton, and you don’t block out, you don’t spend less time on the threats that are far away that can be perceived really closely.” So, that’s kind of a step one, easy way to think about practical implications of attention science.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. So, that makes sense in terms of fundamentally, principally, that’s what’s up in terms of, like, biochemistry, evolution, the human condition, yeah, here we are, we’ve got some predispositions to go that way.

Curt Steinhorst
I can give you a few more layers because, clearly, we’re not monkeys, we’re not cows. I mean, cows, they eat the grass because it tastes good, they have an associated reward, and they run away from wolves. Like, that’s what they do. We’re not just that. So, that’s where the other system comes in. The other system of attention, it allows us to say, “I’m going to ignore that, that interesting thing, right now that doesn’t matter. I’m going to focus on something unilaterally.” This is the type of work people really want when they say, “I want to get focused.”

And some would say the ultimate state of that type of focus is what’s called flow. Now, what happens there is that when we have our attention prioritized by the left hemisphere, the things that are unfamiliar, literally, you don’t see it anymore, you don’t hear it anymore. It all disappears. Like, you can zoom in for periods of time, and it can be extended.

And there’s ways we can increase and decrease our capacity but, ultimately, we do those things when it’s challenging, it demands something from us, when the barriers to other fun things that give us a reward are not available, meaning, “I need to work on a research project for a bank that I’m working with right now, but I also would love to see what my Fantasy Football team is doing. Like, I’ll do the easier thing,” and when we see that we can make real progress towards it. Like, I feel some level of mastery.

If it’s just a list of tasks, then it’s not satiating. Like, we can’t make our attention go to things that are boring and uninteresting. They have to be challenging and interesting, new and interesting, threatening and interesting.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, run that by us again. So, we got the mastery, we’ve got barriers to easier fun things. And what else?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, so it has to be challenging, meaning it has to demand enough of our brain that we won’t drift off. Like, boredom is the number one reason people leave jobs, like it doesn’t take enough, “Any machine can do this.” So, challenging, “This is hard.” It has to involve something that we see ourselves becoming an expert. Mastery, like, “By working on how to ride a bike, I’m going to be, like I can do that.” “By becoming a financial advisor by learning the markets, I’m going to be the expert in the markets.” Whatever it is. We have to see that connection. And then we have to have things that are fun, not available to us.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, there it is. All right. So, given that, let’s say we want to, at the very core, primal, fundamental level, focus in on something. What should we do?

Curt Steinhorst
So, start with space, decide where you’re going to do it, that’s really important. The largest neural connection between short-term and long-term memory is space, meaning, I walk into a place, and it says, my brain is cued to say, “This is what I’m supposed to do here.” So, we want to let our space work for us. Like, if I asked everyone, “Where were you when you heard about what happened at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001?” Everyone remembers where they were.

And so, I would say if I want to zero in on something, I got to pick a place that the noise isn’t too loud. It doesn’t mean…coffee shops can be really great for this, by the way, for a different reason, but, “I’m going to pick this place as where I’m going to work and the other stuff isn’t available.” Like, we call it going into a vault, “That I’m going to…my phone isn’t going to be as available, my people are going to know I’m not available, this is where I do that.” So, space is the first thing I would always tackle.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. So, I like that metaphor going into a vault, which really…I’m thinking about Fortnite’s The Vault. It’s a huge iron enclosure with a big old dial, like, “Boom! We’re going in there,” and it’s secure, like you can put lots of gold bars in this vault.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, that’s good and clear in terms of others know, like, “Hey, I’m not to be disturbed right now.” Ideally, your phone is off or distant, you’re left in another location, and there could be any number of distractions not available to you. Like, the fridge is not there. Well, lay it on us, like what are best practices for vaulting?

Curt Steinhorst
And it depends on the type of work truly. Like, number one practice is clear barriers to entry in and out. Like, that’s the simple way to think of it. I use noise-cancelling headphones because it’s the random unexpected that you’re like, “Oh, that would be interesting.” Your line of sight is the next thing I would do. Turn off the background noise or put on classical music, and then make sure that what I see in front of me isn’t stuff that would make me want to do it instead.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, a PlayStation.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right, like a PlayStation.

Pete Mockaitis
Don’t have that thing.

Curt Steinhorst
Like, a TV. That’s right. Or, you’re in an open office, we’ll come back there eventually, and you work in the same space with someone you know. Like, we’re social, like, “I’d rather talk to them than do this.” So, we just remove, change our line of sight. Those are kind of the big areas that I would be thinking about. And then, from there, I think it really comes down to if you’re wanting to do more creative work than having the ability to see outside is really valuable. Like, the more distant the horizon is, it actually shows that it allows you to think more creatively. If you’re wanting to knock out an Excel spreadsheet, then it’s actually tighter rooms where the blinders are on are more helpful.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I’ve got HGTV scenes running through my head right now in terms of they’re just running spaces for purposes, and it’s not just really stuff for designers to charge more. It has a huge impact in how well you’re able to accomplish whatever you care to accomplish in that space, whether that’s make food, or sleep, or crank out work.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. And I would say, okay, if you’re having to work from home, we need to move…once we hit a certain threshold, we get bored, we have to go somewhere else. So, it’s like just match the space to the task. If it’s cranking out a bunch of emails, or responding to quick messages, or just whatever work you’re doing that’s quick and easy, that you can bundle together, that doesn’t require tons of focus, do it wherever. But that work, that by being interrupted, you lose significantly in time and quality, and you know what that is that demands your full attention, just pick a place where that’s all you do. Like, that is the place where the hard work gets done.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I like that a lot. Okay. So, we talked about a vault. What else?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, so space first. And then the next piece I would say is like creating the clarity and removing the stuff that clutters your mind that you also feel like you have to get done. So, for instance, the number one predictor of how often you self-interrupt is how many people interrupted you the previous hour. Think of how often you’re interrupted because anytime you’re interrupted, someone is saying, “You should be paying attention to something else. There’s something else that you’re missing.”

And so, it’s really hard to say, “I’m going to focus on this,“ when your list of things that are on your mind that you know you have to get to is really long. And so, we start a couple really, really easy ways to solve this and make it easier on your brain is, number one, starting with, this is in every meeting, is, “What’s competing for your attention?” I’ll start by just doing a dump, a brain dump, anything that’s like, “Oh, I get to this. Oh, I got to do this. I got to do this.” And that’s why it’s really good at the beginning of the day kind of plan out your day by saying, “These are the things I have to get done. These are the things I could get done.” So, I start just by offloading everything.

And then the next really important piece, if you want to do focused work that’s in the vault, is you have to match the time to the task. So, you matched the space to the task, now you match the time. You schedule out, you say, “This is going to take me 45 minutes, and all the stuff that I have to do that I know is important, I’ve scheduled it. Like, I’ve given the time that is necessary for it so then I’m not burdened by, ‘What else I haven’t gotten to?’ I’m aware that there’s time allotted for it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s huge in terms of you can just rest easy knowing that that has a place and it’s going to get handled, as opposed to, “Might this not get done and calamity ensue? I hope not.”

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. And the other problem is I’ve had this, clearly, a client will say, “Well, if I look at my calendar, like there’s still all this stuff I can’t get done so I end up putting 15-minute increments for things to even out.” Okay, great. Well, then you know on the frontend, and you got to either dump it or delegate it. You got to trash it so that, at least at the end of the day, you have permission to be successful.

If your day is scheduled at such a level that it’s going to come apart at the seams at some point, that’s the fastest route to get to less of it. Like, when you’re overwhelmed, what do we do? Like, what do you when you’re already feeling guilty, and like, “Aargh, this is the worst”? We watch funny cat videos, like that’s what we do.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s weird, huh?

Curt Steinhorst
We escape it completely because we want to alleviate that feeling of disappointment, shame, regret.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Curt Steinhorst
So, when it comes to changing that equation, you move from just a to-do list to a prioritized to-do list, and you then move from a prioritized to-do list to a calendared-timestamped approach. Let your calendar be your home screen, and let that guide what you work on, and that changes. I would say, most people have not implemented that. In my work, and if you just did that, you get probably 80% improvement, like you get a long way.

Now, there’s one problem that I have to mention on this, and it’s one of the reasons that people often struggle with this, is that it turns out people are really unreliable when it’s not what they want to do. And so, it’s like, okay, let’s put some breathers in here, and say, “I’m not a robot. At 4:00 p.m., if I put that huge project that I’ve been delaying, odds are I’m probably not going to want to do it right then.”

And so, I would just say, make sure you put the stuff that you hate the most at the times when you’re most mentally strong, which usually is more in the morning for most people. And, secondly, if you’re someone who really struggles with this, just put some gaps where you have like three different things, and let yourself choose which one you want to work on at the moment.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is good because I think that some resistance to this idea is like, “Oh, but then I feel boxed in.” Well, it’s sort of like, “Well, in some ways that’s sort of the point. You need a box in order to accomplish the thing that really matters that isn’t getting accomplished.” But, in other ways, hey, if it is flexible, like one task is not truly way more important than another, then, okay, game on. We can have some flexibility there.

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, you’re wired to explore. You’re creative. You do the unexpected. This is what makes us actually better than machines. Machines are always going to be more efficient than us. So, I just think rather than really being frustrated with yourself, you just say, “How do we put that natural curiosity, and interest in the unexpected, how do we put it to good use rather make it end up being debilitating so that we end up nowhere?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, this is beautiful. So, we’ve got the space, we’ve got the time. What else?

Curt Steinhorst
Then we got the people. Yeah, the people. In the work I do, this is perhaps the most underutilized piece of the equation, that when we look at it, organizations, if you work in a company, they want you to be productive. But then we put in systems, and we create culture, and we have teams that all but ensure it will never happen. And so, it’s like there’s 55% increase in the number of meetings and calls per week right now from before when COVID started.

Pete Mockaitis
Before COVID, okay.

Curt Steinhorst
From March until now, we’re seeing a 55% increase. I created this really fun program with Nike called The Focus Fit Challenge. It a four-week thinking of focus as a skill to develop. And we were looking at this team, and it turns out like seven hours of meetings makes it really unlikely that you’re going to be able to do anything else really well.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Curt Steinhorst
And so, yeah, I would say the next thing is to say, “Who steals my attention? Or, who needs my attention? And how do I have a conversation that says…?” because no one benefits from your partial attention. But the reason we all want each other’s attention is because attention is given to what matters, it says we matter. And it also helps other people help us know what matters.

And so, I would just say look at the people who are most likely to want to interrupt you, to want to take it from you, to deserve your attention, and set up some ground rules that says, “During this time, I’m not going to be available at all. During this time, I’m going to be only available to you, and let’s figure out what that needs to look like,” so that now you have advocates for people that previously would’ve been frustrated because it was only going to take a second. It’s like, sure, if we warp the space-time continuum, it’ll only take a second, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Okay. Yeah, that’s great. And then that can feel really good. And I guess that sort of gets to all of this, is that it’s kind about getting really real early instead of late in terms of like you’re not overscheduling, then the day comes apart at the seams, we feel like a loser, failure, because you ruined it. And not with people telling them, “You get this much time, or you don’t get this much time,” and then either disappointing them or you not following through. It’s like you’re making the calls in advance in terms of, “This is going to happen, this is what’s not going to happen, and I am comfortable and responsible with regard to the consequences of it,” as opposed to, “Well, I hope I can make maybe get lucky and get it all done. Let’s see what happens.”

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, that’s right. When we look and we see how people are feeling about work, there’s been an over 31% increase in burnout during this period, even though at the beginning we’ve got a lot of things cleared from our plates. There’s been this 48% increase in team chats, and it makes sense. It really does. Like, “If we can’t see you, then we want to hear from you more often.” But what’s happening is we’re creating a culture where responsiveness is everyone’s highest responsibility, and then we see and we wonder why this engagement occurs, frustration occurs, people feel like there’s less work-life balance, they can’t unplug. Home relationships suffer. At work, relationships are not being built because we’re dislocated.

And so, all I would just say is it’s about being proactive in this but it’s about really giving yourself permission to succeed. Like, this is the challenges when we react and don’t set clear agreed-upon expectations. What we end up doing is we allow the unspoken expectations of others to drive us, and then we actually teach them what they should expect. And so now, we’re emailing immediately back, and now they’re frustrated if we don’t.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right.

Curt Steinhorst
So, if you reliably don’t respond to emails for a day, like the CEO of Zappos, Tony Hsieh, then guess what? No one expects it. Now, I understand some are like, “Tell my boss this.” Right. Let’s start with all the other relationships you have a little more power over, setting some healthier boundaries, and then we can have a conversation with your boss about saying, “I want to do this really well. Can we set some rules around how I know when I’m allowed to do the uninterrupted work?” You know what I mean? So, let’s start with the people that we care about, and just say, “Let’s figure this out together.”

Pete Mockaitis
Sure thing. Or, even just yourself in terms of, ‘No, 7:15 to 7:45, I’m not looking at any devices. I’m taking a shower, I’m journaling, whatever.” And then, yeah, start not at the hardest possible boundary to enforce but the easiest.

Curt Steinhorst
That’s right. And here’s the other thing, one of the reasons we’re like, “I’m not going to do it from 7:15 to 7:45.” Look, if the alternative, if you’re going to stop looking at your phone while you sit on the couch and watch TV, or the rule becomes about constraint, rather than saying, like, “What’s this replacing?” So, make sure that if you’re going to set ground rules, make it because there’s something better. You know what I mean?

It’s like, “From 7:15 to 7:45, we’re going to have a fun high-low day to talk about that,” or, “I’m going to take my kids on a wagon ride.” Like, have something proactive, and then before you get into it, mind a gap. Like, give yourself a gap that says, “I’ve just looked at everything in the world, nothing needs my attention now. And now I’m going to actually give myself permission to just be here.” It’s like close up before so you know nothing matters, and then do something fun, do something that does matter with that time.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s perfect. Well, Curt, I think you’ve done a fantastic job of diagnosing what’s going on here and why we find ourselves in this spot, and what are some things we can do. Lay it on us, you’ve shared this wisdom with many people. I’m sure some have adopted it to tremendous effect, and many others have done nothing. Why? What’s sort of like the holdup, the roadblock, the mistake, the thing that you could help us overpower so that we’re in the group that transforms?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, I think there’s a couple things that would drive our inability to see real progress here. One is that we actually don’t know why we’re doing it. And the point of efficiency and boundaries around these things always has to be founded in something worth focusing on. And so, people aren’t going to just be more efficient and productive if the end is just more efficiency and productivity, and climbing a ladder without a picture of where they’re headed. And so, I would say the biggest thing is like know what you’re devoting this extra uninterrupted energy to, and know that it’s worth it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s great. Well, Curt, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Curt Steinhorst
You know, I would just say focus is possible but make the goal not to be an efficient machine. Make the goal instead to eliminate all the stuff that waste your time, distracts you, so that you can actually have a chance to really thrive in this moment. I was diagnosed with ADD as a kid, and so I’m all too familiar with distraction. And what doesn’t help us is an unrealistic expectation towards efficiency without a realization that we’re all capable of focus when we know what matters.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, thank you. Well, now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Curt Steinhorst
Yeah, my favorite quote is “Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are,” by Jose Ortega y Gasset, a Spanish philosopher.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Curt Steinhorst
Well, I already mentioned the Boston Marathon research. I‘ve been using that. I think that’s really, really interesting and fascinating. The interesting study out of Michigan State talks about how walking through nature actually restores your attention. It’s called Attention Restoration Theory. And I’m really fascinated by how subtle amounts of background noise actually increase our ability to focus.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I can’t let that go. If I wanted to get me some of that, what do you recommend I do for my subtle amounts of background noise?

Curt Steinhorst
You know, the coffee shop, subtle background noise there. I would say the key is if you can get outdoors and into actual nature, that’s the number one thing you want to do. If you can’t, having the feeling of movement is good. You just don’t want it to be people that you know. So, you want to go places where the noise has a small amount of noise. It creates what’s called the inhibitory spillover. It forces the system in your brain to inhibit, block out everything, so you just kind of want a dull lull in a subtle stimulation through movement that’s in the background. So, coffee shops are actually probably the perfect place to be able to get that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Curt Steinhorst
There’s a book called The Social Animal by David Brooks, that I think is the most entertaining and beautiful narrative on the fullness of human sociology and psychology right now. So, if you want to understand like all that’s out there in a really fun way, that’s the book I’d recommend.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Curt Steinhorst
I’ve gotten really where I love the tool Notion. And the reason I love Notion is it’s a system that you can build on but it allows for me to have full visibility on all the tasks I need to do, but even deeper. It allows me to have content that gets linked and referenced across so it’s not me having 12 versions of Google Docs. I use databases and things like that to be able to consolidate research and consulting work and strategies into a single place.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Curt Steinhorst
I have a monthly note that is my idea, interesting ideas and thoughts. And so, I actually used to use Evernote, now I switched to Notion. And anything I’m thinking about, like, “Oh, gosh, that podcast. I really want to watch that podcast, or someone recommended an article, or a quote I came across, or I should use one kind of sunscreen versus another,” like anything. Rather than trying to file it, I throw it all in a single note, and then once a month I do a full review. Even when I read articles, I’ll keep the whole article if it’s for my space but if it’s not, I’ll just pull out the quotes and link it so that, at the very least, if it’s something I found interesting, I will review it twice. And then I’ll file it wherever it belongs later, but I feel no pressure. I just dump it in a single spot.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you frequently?

Curt Steinhorst
I think, I guess, the thing I see on Twitter more than anything is the very basic, that your attention is the most limited, valuable, precious, and misunderstood resource. And there’s no greater gift that you can give to someone than your undivided attention.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Curt Steinhorst
The website is probably the first place, FocusWise.com. And then, if they want to add an email, my email is CS@FocusWise.com. And then social platforms are complicated but if that’s your cup of tea, LinkedIn is definitely the place that I’m most engaged.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And any final challenges or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Curt Steinhorst
You make some simple changes. Don’t do it by putting more work on your plate. Do it by making your space help you out. And do it by just looking at your time, and saying, “I’m going to divide my time. I’m not going to divide my attention.”

Pete Mockaitis
Curt, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and success in all the things you’re attending to.

Curt Steinhorst
Hey, this has been my joy. I’m really grateful for the time.

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