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Focus Time as a Leadership Quality

When I was a young professional, I vividly remember preparing an interview question response about mono-tasking as a weakness. The response was associated with the question of what I consider a weakness and my latency when moving between contexts. I am a focus person; I like to focus on one thing at a time and depending on how deeply focused I am on something, moving to a new thing can take time, perhaps more time than some industries or supervisors desire.

I prepared the response and have used it, though I haven't been in an interview context in quite some time. But what strikes me is how many people are telling me to set aside time for deep and focused work now. Between defensive calendaring, strategic thinking, immediate vs. important, the approach appears to be akin to "there are too many pulls on our attention, we need to step back and focus." That was something I was taught from a young age to be negative and I find it being taught to my children in the same way.

I would be remiss not to note that I understand the difference between focused work and flexibility as it pertains to context switching, but the nuance in the American narrative is missing. Millenials are known for their ability to ingest information from various sources at an alarming rate, especially within a digital context, but the behavior is being shown to also degrade our health at an equally alarming rate.

The world now needs people who can focus in ways that we have taken for granted because multitasking has too frequently been conflated with high productivity. We all may be biased to think of someone as less productive if they "only" work 40 hours, instead of 50 in a week.

Leaders are expected to be able to think deeply about their work, their contexts, their relationships, their future, and more; while thinking of all that of their reports to be a good supervisor, coach, and mentor; all while managing up and thinking strategically. These things take time, energy, and focus. You can't prepare for a day of meetings within the one-off hour at the beginning or end of the day, not if you want to be successful and fully present at each one.

The expectations of daily productivity with long-term thinking takes planning, forethought, and consistent action. These are the things that I am learning—or perhaps relearning from my childhood self who wouldn't answer at the first (or second, or third) call of my name—are important to the leaders of today and tomorrow. Perhaps I need to be more patient as my burgeoning child leaders show the same strengths of focus.