Stanford Graduate School of Business instructor Nir Eyal believes that being indistractable is the most important business skill for the 21st century.

The ability to focus in a world of distractions is an increasingly coveted skill.

People who allow their attention to be controlled by other people and other things are ill-equipped to lead in a world where creativity, problem-solving, and innovation are mandatory. In fact, some business experts are beginning to talk about attention quotient (AQ) as being just as important as IQ in success at work.

Being able to remain “present” and focused when surrounded by distractions keeps you from wasting your intellect and skills. This is not to say you should dispense with all your tech tools and lock yourself in a windowless room to work. But you have to learn how to manage distractions (and their many sources) rather than letting them manage you.

I cover this topic in-depth in my new book The Intelligent Leader, and I firmly believe that presence and focus are essential skills that should be emphasized in leadership development programs.

Why Focus Matters So Much

Focus matters because, as a leader, the more present you are and the more vigilant you are about your responsibilities, the fewer mistakes you’ll make. You’ll also make better decisions because you’re basing them not on fragments of incomplete information that bombard you from all sides, but from carefully chosen, high-quality sources of information and insight.

Moving slowly right now often means moving more quickly later on. Here’s an analogy. When you pour a concrete foundation for a house, you have to wait until the curing process is at least 50% completed before you can begin building on it. If you don’t wait for the foundation to cure, the building process will be plagued by problems. Wait now, and you can move faster later.

Fighting the Distraction Tsunami

But how can you stay focused and present when distractions bombard us everywhere and all the time? It takes commitment and practice. At first, you may have to take deliberate steps, like setting a timer for a period in which you won’t check your phone or email. With practice, it gets easier to set aside distractions, knowing you will ultimately accomplish more.

Taking deliberate steps for blocking out distractions helps you improve focus skills.

Multitasking is a major enemy of cognitive control, but you can unlearn your tendency to multitask. Likewise, open offices can be the enemy of environmental control, but designated “focus rooms” and accessories like noise-blocking headphones can help you take some of that environmental control back. In short, you have to identify your distractions, develop a plan to contain them, and practice that plan diligently.

The Courage of Doing Nothing

Taoism incorporates the concept of wuwei, or “non-doing,” which sounds like it goes completely against the reality of the 21st century. The concept of “action without action” is a paradox, but strategic non-action actually makes a lot of sense. There are times when we need to stop trying to force action because stillness helps preserve us for times when action is needed.

As I discuss in my new book The Intelligent Leader, Bill Gates carves out time every year to fully disconnect from the world, except for books and innovation proposals. These weeks of “non-doing” have ended up being remarkably productive in the long run for Microsoft. Clearing your mind allows new ideas to take hold and flourish. It takes courage to “do nothing” in a world that is always on and always connected, but like courage in other situations, it pays off long term.

Our focus and attention face demands unlike any faced by previous generations. Technology has done amazing and wonderful things, but it has not supplanted the necessity of prioritizing, simplifying, and distilling our efforts to where they will do the most good.

We’ve all heard the aphorism, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Today, technology is our “hammer,” and while it can solve many important problems, everything is not a metaphorical nail. Being an Intelligent Leader requires that we know which tools to use when and that we are skilled in using the most important tool of all: our mind. I hope you will check out my new book The Intelligent Leader, which is available starting October 15.


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