How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Hyper-Focus

A number of years ago, I was coaching Alex (not his real name), a successful CEO in the technology sector. Alex was extremely focused on bringing in sales. He constantly feared that there wouldn’t be enough and channeled the vast majority of his energy and time into avoiding that outcome.

During plentiful times—when there was no perceived risk around sales or finding the next client—Alex allowed himself to focus on other key areas of the business including people, strategy, and execution. But as soon as he felt the slightest uncertainty about revenue, like a stretched rubber band snapping back into its natural state, he resumed his hyper-focus on sales. 

As a result, his company didn’t have a strategy or repeatable core processes in place. They struggled to find and retain the right people, and to hold employees to the right levels of rigor and accountability. Although Alex’s operation was slowly scaling, it did so in an unhealthy and unsustainable way. 

Alex had fallen into a trap that I’ve seen entangle many leaders and strangle growth: he was focused on a small portion of the business for the vast majority of the time. This is the portion of the business—in Alex’s case, sales—I refer to as the 5 percent. As a result, he essentially (and unknowingly) abdicated his leadership of the other 95 percent, to the detriment of the organization. 

It wasn’t until Alex hired a chief operating officer to run the day-to-day and week-to-week business-generating activities that he was able to elevate his leadership and concentrate on the other 95 percent to build a healthier and more scalable firm. In hindsight, he saw that he paid a steep price for his focus on the 5 percent!

What is your 5 percent right now? Where do you have tunnel vision focused on a particular problem or area of pain in your organization, potentially at the expense of the other 95 percent?

Why does this happen—despite your good intentions—and how can you better balance your focus to include the totality of the business?

The Science Behind Hyper-Focus

To understand why it’s so easy to fall prey to hyper-focus, we’ll begin with the reticular activating system (RAS), a neural network in the brain stem that processes and filters the information that reaches your conscious mind. As you navigate each stimulus-filled day, this mental gatekeeper performs a vital function by automatically screening out non-essential sensory inputs (for example, you’re usually unaware of the feeling of your clothing on your body as you drive a car, whereas you’re very aware of the brake lights on the cars just in front of you). 

The RAS is also the reason why an object of your focus tends to grow in importance to you. 

Here’s an example. Imagine for a moment that you’re on a first date. You’re seated across from your date at a restaurant, and as you watch them enjoy their meal, you realize you just can’t stand how they chew their food. Suddenly, everything else seems to fall away. Your date could be the most gorgeous, successful, intelligent person on the planet—the person of your dreams—and all you can register is the cringeworthy way their mouth moves with each bite. Once you focus on that behavioral nuance, you simply can’t see anything else. And, in this case, your first date is also likely to be your last!

There’s good news and bad news about the function of the RAS. The good news is you can control your focus. The bad news is you can’t control the fact that the object of your focus automatically grows in importance to you. Thus, the difference-making lever has to be controlling your focus in the first place, rather than attempting to distribute it with conscious effort.  

With this in mind, let’s look at some of the “5 percent issues” that disproportionately distract leaders: 

What Hijacks Your Focus 

Over the course of my career, I’ve seen numerous factors hijack a leader’s focus, including: 

·   Problem clients. A client who is difficult to work with, doesn’t treat your employees well, fails to pay on time, or creates other issues for your organization is bound to capture a disproportionate amount of your attention. 

·   Significant client at risk. When you’re worried about losing clients, you’re also fearful about losing revenue and hurting your company’s reputation—concerns that can draw your focus from the rest of the operation. 

·   Toxic high performers. I’ve seen organizations nearly felled by high performers who create drama that must be dealt with on a daily basis. 

·   Low performers. When you tolerate team members who aren’t pulling their weight, you find ways to compensate—whether through your own efforts or your team’s—and that consumes time and energy that could be better spent elsewhere. 

What You’re Missing 

What happens when you’re focused primarily on any of the above? Zooming-in on that one issue—tunnel vision on the 5 percent—inevitably happens at the expense of the other 95 percent of your business. 

How do you counter that tendency? First, think about the elements you may be missing when you are sharply focused on any one problem, issue, or area of your business. 

For example:

·   When a problem client has all of your attention, your other clients—who likely compose a much larger proportion of your revenue—aren’t getting the care they deserve. 

·   Similarly, when you concentrate on a significant client at risk, those you neglect in the process—clients and employees alike—may end up slipping out the door. 

·   When you’re wrapped up in the drama of a toxic high performer, you’re probably not paying attention to that individual’s impact on the productivity, engagement, and happiness of the other 95 percent of people who work for you. 

·   And when you’re compensating for a low performer, you may fail to see the reality of the toll that picking up their slack is taking on the rest of the team. 

Even worse, the issue or pain point capturing your attention is often a symptom of an underlying root cause you’re not seeing. Say you’re facing a client at risk of leaving you for a competitor. Maybe your pricing isn’t competitive anymore. Maybe the quality of your product or service has fallen off. Perhaps your customer service team isn’t getting the job done to the client’s satisfaction. When you focus on and treat the symptom, which—thanks to your ever vigilant RAS—grows in importance to you, you ignore the possibility that there’s a deeper, even more costly root cause (for more on solving for a problem’s root cause, rather than its symptoms, check out this article).

Note too that the 5 percent often represents what you don’t want—drama, lost clients, underperformers, and the like. On the other hand, the 95 percent typically holds the key to what you’d like to see more of—things like more sustainable, profitable growth. That’s yet another reason why it’s crucial to flip your focus from the 5 to the 95. You’ll be happier and you’ll actually be focused on getting more of what you want rather than less of what you don’t. Here’s an article that explores this concept more deeply, including how to use your emotional state as an indicator of productive focus.

The Power of Words

So, how do you override your RAS-driven tendency to focus on that 5 percent and unlock the possibility of the other 95 percent? You’ve got to do some reframing. What does that look like in action? When you find yourself thinking about that one person on the team who’s not pulling their weight or the client that’s sparking concerns left and right, consider it a cue to pause and actively reflect about the other 95 percent. 

Who else is affected by the fact that your team member is slacking? How are you depriving the rest of your clients of attention as you tend to the one making the most noise? Taking the time to consider the bigger picture will help you see the reality of the focus-draining situation more clearly. And with better perspective, you can identify the true root cause of the problem and make better choices to arrive at the right, more sustainable solution. 

Find Balance

Of course, you shouldn’t disregard the 5 percent entirely. Instead, work to find equity between the issue at hand and the rest of your operation. Your ability to determine root causes and to make better decisions about solving them lies in the balance. Because we’re fallible humans and this is often a blindspot, it’s important to find someone—like a trusted colleague, coach, or advisor—who can help you be more accountable to the other 95 percent and avoid the perils of hyper-focus.

Where you focus goes, your attention and energy flow. It’s as simple—and challenging—as that.

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Resource Links…

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share just two or three in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

The Hidden Traps in Decision Making (HBR)

“Making decisions is the most important job of any executive. It’s also the toughest and the riskiest. Bad decisions can damage a business and a career, sometimes irreparably. So where do bad decisions come from? In many cases, they can be traced back to the way the decisions were made—the alternatives were not clearly defined, the right information was not collected, the costs and benefits were not accurately weighed. But sometimes the fault lies not in the decision-making process but rather in the mind of the decision maker. The way the human brain works can sabotage our decisions…”

How Barack Obama Approaches the Toughest Decisions (Medium)

“One of the first things I discovered as President of the United States was that no decision that landed on my desk had an easy, tidy answer. The black-and-white questions never made it to me — somebody else on my staff would have already answered them. And while few decisions in life are as complex as the ones you face in the Oval Office, I did walk away from my eight years as president with some thoughts on how to approach tough questions…”

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