Executive Skills: How to Improve Your Ability to Focus

With many distractions during work today, some people have difficulty staying with a particular task, although others have far less problem with it.

In fact, when it comes to the executive skill of focus, about a fifth of senior executives and managers can count it as a personal strength, while almost 10 percent count it as a weakness.

Executive skills are actually brain functions or cognitive skills that neuroscientists have located in specific regions of the brain, primarily the frontal lobes. These functions develop starting at birth and are hard-wired into every person, and they’re fully developed by adulthood. They are called executive skills because they help people execute tasks.

Every person has a set of 12 executive skills (self-restraint, working memory, emotion control, focus, task initiation, planning/prioritization, organization, time management, defining and achieving goals, flexibility, observation and stress tolerance).

People have two or three that are their strongest and two or three that are their weakest, and they are not dramatically changeable for life.

For example, if a person’s weakest executive skill is focus, several focus seminars or classes taken are not likely to dramatically change the weakness.

Over a global base of senior executives and managers, NFI Research queried business executives and managers to measure the level of focus.

The executive skill of focus is the capacity to maintain attention to a situation or task in spite of distractibility, fatigue or boredom.

The results show that slightly more than a fifth (22 percent) of senior executives and managers have a high level of focus, while 8 percent have a low level. Nearly three-quarters (70 percent) have a medium level of the skill.

When it comes to focus, the same percentage of senior executives and managers are high in the skill. Of those low in focus, there are more managers (11 percent) than senior executives (4 percent).

"I’ve often noticed that the top executives are much better focused than I am," said one manager who completed the focus questionnaire, part of the executive skills profile.

"However, I can honestly say that the quality of my output is usually superior. So the distractions slow me down, but they don’t seem to affect quality."

By company size, more of those high in focus are at large companies rather than small or medium. More of those low in focus are in medium companies, followed by small. No senior executives in large companies rated low in focus.

When under pressure, a person’s weakest executive skills fail first. So if a person’s weakest skill is focus, it can be pretty accurately predicted that when one is under the gun, that skill will likely fail and the person will lose focus.

"Interruptions are continuous, making focus impossible," said one respondent.

Said another: "With phone, fax and e-mails, everything is so pressing and urgent that it is difficult to stay focused on one task. People don’t wait anymore. Everything can and will be done at the last minute by others, therefore imposing your immediate attention, thus interrupting the current task on your desk."

"Interest and stimulation are great motivators," said another respondent. "I find when tasks become routine, I lose interest and find it difficult to stay on task."

The key way to minimize problems caused by a weak executive skill is to modify the environment.

"I have come to learn that if I really have to get something done or even guarantee time to think, the office is the last place I want to be," said one respondent.

For someone low in focus, the best place to focus on work may not actually be at work.

Chuck Martin is a best-selling business book author, his latest being , Tough Management (McGraw-Hill, 2005), the business fable "Coffee at Luna’s" and the soon-to-be published "Smarts." He lectures around the world and can be reached at chuck@nfiresearch.com.

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