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Ep 487: Focus


As an end-of-year special, this week is productivity week on the podcast.

With so much going on and so many competing pressures, I know that everyone listening will, at least at some point in 2022, have had challenges with focus and information overload. Talent Acquisition is evolving quickly, and managing attention and processing information are vital skills that aren’t highlighted as much as they should be.

A couple of days ago, in Episode 486, we looked at managing information overload when I spoke to Tiago Forte, the inventor of the Building a Second Brain system of personal knowledge management.

In this episode, I want to focus on focus, and my guest is the author and speaker Erik Qualman. In 2009 Erik wrote a hugely influential book predicting the rise of social media called Socianomics, and since then has written extensively on digital leadership. His most recent book is The Focus Project which highlights the problems humans have focusing in our hyper-connected world and explores some of the potential solutions that can help us.

In the interview, we discuss:

• The Focus Project

• Focusing on the big, not the busy

• Focus is hard in an unfocused world.

• The importance of systems and process

• Progress, not perfection

• Saying no a lot

• Having more time is not the solution.

• Attacking the one big thing before the day attacks you

• The power of sleep

• Spotting patterns, time fencing and the 20/20/20 rule

• How can employers support focus?

• What does the future of work now look like

Listen to this podcast in Apple Podcasts.


0 (0s):
This episode is sponsored by Seek Out the number one in talent intelligence and diversity recruiting software for enterprise companies.

0 (28s):
Hi there, this is Matt Alder. Welcome to episode 487 of the Recruiting Future Podcast as an end of year special. This week is productivity week on the podcast. With so much going on and so many competing pressures, I know that everyone listening will, at least at some point in 2022 have had challenges with focus and information overload. Talent acquisition is evolving quickly and managing attention and processing information are vital skills that aren’t highlighted as much as they should be. A couple of days ago in episode 486, we looked at managing information overload.

0 (1m 11s):
When I spoke to Tiago Forte, the inventor of the building, a second brain system of personal knowledge management. In this episode, I want to focus on focus and my guest is author and speaker Eric Coleman. In 2009, Eric wrote a hugely influential book predicting the Rise of Social Media called Socialnomics. And since then has written extensively on digital leadership. His most recent book is The Focus Project which highlights the problems humans have focusing in our hyperconnected world and explores some of the potential solutions that can help us.

0 (1m 52s):
Hi Eric and welcome to the podcast.

3 (1m 54s):
No, it’s great to be here. Thank you.

0 (1m 56s):
An absolute pleasure to have you on the show. For the people listening who may not have come across you and your work before, please could you introduce yourself and tell us what you do?

3 (2m 7s):
Yeah, hi, I’m Eric Cuman. Some call Me Equal Man cuz first initial last name spells Equal man. But I’ve written six bestselling books and I speak around the world. I’ve now reached 55 countries around the topics primarily of digital leadership in focus. And my background was in technology before I was open to the wild world of writing and speaking. So it’s been a bit of fun ride and I own a small animation studio as well and some web properties. And for fun, since I have two younger daughters, they’re, they’re 10 and 12, we actually produced a board game called Kitty Corn. So we’re having fun, it’s all around entertainment. Have fun, help people, that’s our motto. Have fun and help people.

0 (2m 47s):
Fantastic stuff. I mean, I first came across your work when I read social economics that you, that you wrote a few years ago. Tell us a little bit about the books that you’ve written.

3 (2m 57s):
Kind of fell into backwards. So social dynamics, the first book that I wrote is, was written when MySpace was bigger than Facebook. And I’d seen, I’d been in the tech space at that point in time for almost two decades. Cause I started early as an intern before everything was digital. So there’s the, the five kids that were in the corner of the room, they’d love digital. And so when social media came along I said this is the next big thing. It’s not just for teenagers cuz when it first started a lot of people thought it was just this gamey thing for teenagers. And I quickly realized that there’s a pattern that I’d seen previously in the 20 years prior that this was the next big thing when it came to digital. And so I wrote social nomics in part out of frustration cuz I go, how can you not see this?

3 (3m 40s):
How can everyone not see that this is gonna impact governments, it’s gonna impact business, it’s going to impact how we communicate as a global society. And so that’s why we wrote the first book Socialnomics. And then since then I’ve written six other books. They’re all around essentially pop culture and changes in the future in digital leadership. The last book was actually an anti-venom to the first book. So Socialnomics was saying, get into this stuff, it’s huge, it’s gonna be massive. And then all of a sudden people got way too un far into their phones. And so my last book, the Focus project was the Anti-Venom, that first book Socialnomics. So the focus project was all is all about how do I focus on the big versus the busy?

3 (4m 23s):
How do I get outta my phone, how do I get outta my email? Those things are useful, but you shouldn’t be in them all the time. So it’s really figuring out what’s that right harmony to achieve.

0 (4m 33s):
And how did the book come about? Where did you get the, the inspiration or the, or the motivation to write

3 (4m 40s):
That book? It starts with a sample size of one. I needed it. So even though I just described that I own my own company, at the end of each day, my hair was literally on fire. And so, excuse me. And so my hair is on fire each day. And then I quickly realized, man, I can’t do this every day. Every day I’d say, okay, I’m not gonna do that again. We’re gonna focus on the big versus the busy. And I was getting pulled into the busy. And then as I talked to people, whether it was a ceo, I talked to school teachers, I’d talk to superintendents, I’d talk to stay-at-home mom and dads. And everyone seemed to have the same issue that they felt like they were running a million miles an hour, not going anywhere.

3 (5m 21s):
So I go, okay, I’m in this, I’m gonna do some research. So that’s why it’s called the project. And that’s how I kicked it off. I go, I’m gonna research everything that’s been talked about for the last couple thousand years about how do I focus on the big versus the busy, see what works and doesn’t work for me and, and then put that into a book. And so that’s why it’s called the Focus Project. It literally was a project that I undertook for two years.

0 (5m 43s):
Tell us about some of the things that you looked at in that project. I mean, obviously don’t tell us about the, don’t give away the whole book, but give us some, give us some examples of maybe some of the, the the things that you thought would be good to test out.

3 (5m 56s):
Yeah, I mean mean I just got excited from a standpoint of, oh my gosh, what if I just for a month focused on organizing my house? Like that was my key focus. I instead of just kind of picking at it, what if I just focus on organizing the house or from a business perspective, what if this month I just focused on sales, that there was just really hardcore on sales rather than just doing all the, the maintenance of a business. Why didn’t, why didn’t I just focus on sales and, and so when I pause, I go, well life’s still happening so it’s, I can’t just do a hundred percent sales. So I carved out time to where I go. Also, if I were to put this in the book, how much time do people have? Could they dedicate? So that’s why I really spent each day I started with two hours and cut it back to a half hour, just a half hour a day I was gonna focus on that big thing and each month I was gonna pick something different.

3 (6m 43s):
So one month was family, the first month was sales or growth, I call it growth. So people that what’s the one thing you have to do to be able to afford to do this project? And for me it was sales, but those were kind of the things that I tackled. Now, the top learnings that I got from it were number one, focus is very, very, very, very hard. This is why I hadn’t been able to do it. And it took me six false starts before I was able to do it. So literally I’d say, all right, we’re gonna do 30 minutes a day for sales or growth for this month. And I had six false starts. Like there’s months go 18 minutes, not for the day. I’d go 18 minutes for the month. And here I was laser focused, I couldn’t do it.

3 (7m 24s):
So six fall starts for one focus is very, very hard in this unfocused world. Number two, the people that we’re able to figure out that focus better than most, they don’t have it inherently in their dna, N a rather, they put in systems and processes in place and primarily they say no to most things so they can say yes to the big ones. So they’re better at saying no than most of us and they have systems and processes to do that. And then last but not least, give yourself some grace that it’s about progress, not perfection. So it’s literally just 1% better per day when some days you’re gonna be in the negative, but over the course of time you want to just, you think about that rollercoaster, there’s ups and downs, but you just wanna make sure that over the course of five years, 10 years, that that rollercoaster, that that line, if you drew, drew it out, would be continuing to go up.

3 (8m 11s):
So again, think progress over perfection. So those are the top three takeaways that I got. Focus is very, very hard. Number two people that are very successful at focusing, it’s not inherent in their dna, they just put in systems and processes to make sure they achieve that focus. And primarily it’s about saying no. And then last but not least, make sure that you’re giving yourself grace. It’s about progress, not perfection.

0 (8m 34s):
Absolutely. And that, that, that kind of all makes perfect sense. And I suppose to dig a bit deeper into those, really starting with the first one about focus being hard and I’m sure that everyone listening will will agree 100% with that. So the obvious answer would be that you know, there’s so much information around and we’ve got phones and we’ve got screens and we’ve got all this, all this kind of stuff going on. Is that the sole reason that focus is so hard or is there something, something else going on?

3 (9m 0s):
Focus has been hard for thousands of years. It is harder today because of all the distraction, but it has been hard if you go back to the stoics, I mean it has been hard since the the dawn of time. So that’s why I wanted to go back and really learn through history. But yeah, it’s just fascinating. I think that it’s really intense. So a lot of people have the misconception that if you gave me more time then I could get everything done. That’s actually false cuz think about sometimes you get up two hours earlier and you don’t get everything done and in fact you probably get less done than if you woke up at your normal time cuz you’re not as efficient, you’re tired, you’re making mistakes. And so even if I gave you 48 hours in a day, you’d have more to do.

3 (9m 41s):
So it’s really about identifying what’s the one thing that if I do it well makes everything else either easier or unnecessary. So what’s the one thing that if I do it well, makes everything else either easier or unnecessary and attack that before the day attacks you. And so that’s one of the key key components is attack that one big thing. Before the day attacks you,

0 (10m 1s):
You mentioned that people who are really good at focusing have, you know, tools and processes and and things like that. And you know, obviously what you, you, you’ve, you’ve spoken about there is a is is a, is a kind of great foundation to that. When you were sort of, you know, doing research and finding people who were good at this for the book, what were some of the other tools and and techniques that were really working from them that you kind of learned from?

3 (10m 25s):
Yeah, one that I use today is the night before I’ll write down what my intent is. So what’s the one thing I’m gonna attack? There’s a couple reasons. There’s some neuroscience be behind it that shows that sometimes we can’t sleep at night and sleep’s the new leadership tool. So it’s important to get rest in order to be as effective as possible and to be as focused as possible. But by writing that down the night before, you’ve taught your brain that that’s taken care of till tomorrow. So I can sleep, I can rest, I don’t have to think about that thing that I need to attack in the morning cause I’ve written it down. And then also when you wake up, then it’s there ready for you to attack in the morning.

3 (11m 7s):
So just a reminder that it’s right there. And then next to that I always write, how was the day? So plus one, plus two, plus three, minus one, minus two, minus three. So at the end of the day I write down was the day a plus one, A plus two plus three, minus one, minus two, minus three. And then I read a note of why that was. And so I can start to identify those patterns on what was a good day, what was a bad day. And a lot of ’em do relate to focus. Now I’m telling you that because the night before I always put plus three. So I, I optimistically say tomorrow’s gonna a plus three cause I’m gonna attack this big thing. And so not every day is a plus three, there’s minus threes, there’s minus twos, minus ones.

3 (11m 48s):
But it does help to have that intention and I’ve just added that note to where tomorrow’s gonna be a plus three because I’m gonna do this and it’s just a short note, really short note. And I track that as much as I can. And again, progress over perfection. There’s days when even though what I just described takes 60 seconds to do, there’s days when I don’t do it, which is crazy, but it happens. So it’s about that progress over perfection, but it’s really about seeing those patterns and then recognize that patterns on on what makes you excel, what makes you happy and what makes you focused.

0 (12m 21s):
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0 (13m 8s):
I suppose one of the other things worth discussing is the way we work, the way many people work has fundamentally changed in the last two or three years as we’ve, we’ve come out of the pandemic, we’ve got more hybrid working, we’ve got more remote working, we’ve got even more digital tools than we had before, we’ve got more digital communication. How does that impact focus and how do you think people can sort of adapt to deal with the way that work is now?

3 (13m 41s):
So a lot of our listeners are probably like I was, if I’m gonna write a book or maybe I’m gonna write a marketing plan or I’m gonna do the budget review, I’m gonna sit down. My thought process was, okay, I’m gonna sit here and I’m gonna crush this out for the next four hours. Well it turns out that most of us work best in 20 minutes segments. So test it out. It might be for you that it’s 25 for someone else that might be 30, you know Matt, it might be you’re 30 or 25, it doesn’t matter, but test it out. But we work best in these mini breaks, taking these mini breaks. Now this relates to the modern world as well because all of us are consuming more blue light than ever in the history of the world. So our devices have this blue light, it comes at us, it causes eye strain.

3 (14m 21s):
Now we don’t know the long term impact of that eye strain, but we do know the short term impact is that it causes your eyes to be tired. Now the bigger impact of that is when your eyes are tired, your entire body is tired. So taking these mini breaks, I call it the twenty twenty twenty rule. So every 20 minutes you should physically move. Motion creates a motion which creates energy. So if most of us were working, it’d be stand up and then you look out at a fixed object at least 20 feet in the distance. So for me, I’m looking out my window right now at a a tree that’s 20 feet in the distance and I’ll look at it for 20 seconds. So again, every 20 minutes, pause, take that one minute break, stand up if you can physically move, look out in the distance at a fixed object for 20 seconds, it’s at least 20 feet in the distance.

3 (15m 8s):
And so that’s the 2020 rule. And what that does, it helps reduce your eye stream, which helps increase your energy. And also just it’s, you’re killing two birds with one stone as well. Because at that point in time you’re also giving yourself that mini break. And most of us work best in 20 minutes segments.

0 (15m 26s):
Lots of people listening, working people functions within their, their organization, whether that’s talent acquisition or or hr. What can employers do to help their people be better at focusing? What kind of environment can they create? What support should they be giving?

3 (15m 46s):
The support should be? So if you looked at Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, they’re good friends, but they got together in, you look at Bill Gates’ calendar and it’s completely packed. And then you look at Warren Buffet, he literally has this old school notebook, a flip book that had five things on it for the month. And so the answers in the middle there. And so Bill thought that being an effective leader is everything’s jam packed, every minute’s taken, you don’t even have time to go to a bio break in Warren’s thought process is you need time to think and the answer lies somewhere in the middle. And I call it cowboy and cowgirl scheduling, that you need fenced off areas for specific things for your think time.

3 (16m 26s):
And you need wide open spaces, you shouldn’t cram your calendar together. So fence off specific times for specific things. So it could be, okay, I know I need to, if you’re in sales or let’s say you’re in hr, you go, I, I know I need to catch up, catch up with the team, so I’m gonna block off, I’m gonna fence off catch up time with the team on nine 30 s on Wednesday. So you’re fencing off specific time. And then also you need to feds off specific time for yourself. So it might be, oh I need to really deep think on this particular thing that we’re doing. So I’m gonna fence that off every Thursday at 10:00 AM that’s fenced off, that’s my time to focus on X, Y, and Z. And so it’s really as a culture per your question with human resources and with working with teams and culture is really just buying into the culture that that it’s okay for you to have time blocked off for yourself.

0 (17m 18s):
That makes perfect sense. Taking your current book, the the Focus project and thinking back to your book on digital leadership, which has obviously written, you know, a little while ago before the pandemic, how has what you’ve learned doing the focus project and also you know, coming through the pandemic affected the way that you think about digital leadership? Now

3 (17m 43s):
The main shift, which is a good one, is that all leaders in this digital era and part of it was hyper accelerated. The pandemic hyper accelerated things seven to 10 years. And this includes human relationships is with everyone working remote, it became apparent that wait, we should be checking in with people more than we ever have. We need to check in with them more than ever. Now historically, the way it worked at most organizations is at best, at best I saw most organizations you’d check in once a quarter, but most would check in once a year around an annual salary view, like a deep check in around an annual salary view, which is a terrible time to check in. So you really need to check in with these mini check-ins all the time.

3 (18m 25s):
Most people when they approach it, do it the wrong way. I was doing it the wrong way. I’d say, how you doing? Fine, most people are people pleasers, they’re gonna say fine. So you’d ask someone how you doing? Fine. But then in time you realize no, a better question to ask is how are you doing on a scale of one to 10? And then they’ll say an eight. And then the second question is more important than the first, how do I get you two a 10? And so that’s what leadership, digital leadership looks like. It’s about checking in. And that check-in can be, there’s an app, you can design an app that does that and marry it also with face-to-face or picking up the phone or zooming. It’s really about that combination of those splint stones and Jetsons coming together.

3 (19m 7s):
It’s that offline and that online that all digital leaders understand. And success is a team sport. So it’s imperative to know if that person’s not right, they’re not gonna be as effective in the team as they can be. And so again asking how are you doing on a scale of one to 10? And then over time, as you get more comfortable with this, and this is where the question that you asked previously really comes in, what kind of culture are you gonna build? Are you building a culture that’s trusting and understanding that the lines of work and non-work have blurred completely? And are you willing to ask this question before the one I just asked?

3 (19m 49s):
So my company’s called Eagleman Studio, so I’ll ask how you doing on a scale of one to 10 in life? And then when they say that answer, then I say, how you doing on a scale of one to 10 at Eagleman Studios? Because that gives me context. Before, if I asked how you doing? Because I first started asking how you doing one to 10? And they’d say, I’m an 8, 8, 8, 8, 8, 9, 9, 9, 8, 8, 8 3. I’m like, oh my gosh, Kelsey’s gonna leave. She’s our best animator. What are we gonna do? She’s only a three. But the reason she was a three is because she had something that wasn’t work related that was going on in her life that I wasn’t privy to. So again, it’s really about understanding your emotional intelligence.

3 (20m 29s):
You don’t wanna overstep the line on the, on the personal side, but it’s trying to figure out, I need that context to understand, okay, this person’s dog just passed away. They might not be all there today a hundred percent and that’s fine, that’s just normal. And so it’s really about asking those questions that give you not only the quantitative feedback a number, but also that qualitative feedback. How do I get you to a 10? So again, just to wrap it up in time as you get comfortable, and this isn’t for everyone you work with, but if you understand that that person’s accepting of these questions, you ask how you doing in life one to 10.

3 (21m 9s):
And they can’t say 10 cuz no one’s perfect. And then you always ask, how do I get you to a 10? And then the second follow up is, how are you doing at Southwest Airlines? Or how are you doing at Eagleman Studios one to 10 and how do I get you to a 10 in checking in? Often on those let’s like a couple times a week, you can ask that question. And for people that have kids, it’s also a great way in teenagers that don’t talk at all, it’s a great way to talk to your kids as well. So hopefully you find that helpful and we found it innumerably helpful for a lot of the companies that we work with and people that we talk to that have used it.

0 (21m 42s):
I always like to ask everyone who comes on the show about the future and no pressure with this, but obviously one of the things I loved about reading Socialnomics was, you know, it was pretty accurate in terms of what was gonna, what was gonna happen with social media and how it was gonna take over the take over the world. So as I as I, as I have you on this show, I have to ask you, what do you think’s gonna happen over the next sort of four or five years, I suppose specifically when it comes to work and technology,

3 (22m 15s):
You’re gonna see that blend, it’s that Flintstones Jetsons that people are gonna gonna blend together and continue to understand that. And it’s gonna be a little different cuz the, the toughest thing for your listeners right now is historically we treated everyone the same at work. Meaning everyone’s either in the office or everyone’s outta the office, everyone leaves at four or they don’t leave at four. And part of that’s legality depending on what country you’re in. But really we’re gonna treat everyone not the same, but we’re gonna treat everyone fair. And so that’s a massive shift when it comes to dealing with people because if you’re a superstar, you’re gonna get your work done no matter where you are, and you’re gonna demand that I wanna work.

3 (23m 0s):
If someone’s a a rockstar, they’re the best program in the world and they wanna work in Alaska, guess what? They’re gonna let them work in Alaska. And if you’re not the best programmer and you need kind of more structure and need to be in that office, then unfortunately that’s just the way it’s gonna be. So it’s a, it’s a major shift. It’s a major shift in how we run organizations that you’re not gonna treat everyone the same, but you’re not gonna treat everyone fair. So that’s one thing in terms of like a technological piece that people probably don’t have on their radar yet, it’s, we’re going to vote on our phones. So you’re gonna elect presidents and prime ministers in heads of states, and most importantly at the local level, you’re gonna vote more than you ever have because of online mobile voting that it’s just gonna be on your phone.

3 (23m 48s):
And it’s gonna say, here’s the one issue, here’s the issue. This is what this side is saying, this is what that side is saying. And I even allude to this 12 years ago in social nomics when I talk about the question is, are you gonna be able to see how your friends voted and what their opinions are? And I think that makes a more informed voting cycle if you know, okay, this is three friends voted this way, two voted this way, this is why they did it. And then here’s what the, the summary is at the top super short. This is what this, this vote is about. And again, people get all fired up on the president, the Prime Minister voting, but this is really a bigger impact at the local level. People like to talk about the bigger elections, but it’s really about getting more and more people to vote on the local level.

3 (24m 31s):
But mobile voting very controversial, but we’ll see that in our lifetime.

0 (24m 35s):
Absolutely. And as a final question, what’s next for you? What are you, what are you working on next?

3 (24m 41s):
Yeah, so we got that board game out, kitty corn, that’s been fun still speaking a around the world on focus in digital leadership. So it’s been great just meeting so many people. It’s now 55 countries. It’s been just, just been amazing. Next book that we’re working on is that we’re trying to figure out is, is it gonna be deeper on that one to 10 that I mentioned? Or just really about how do you approach failure? So always continuing to write and, but just loving meeting so many beautiful people around the world on the speaking circuit.

0 (25m 14s):
Eric, thank you very much for talking to

3 (25m 16s):
Me. No, thank you Matt. It’s been great to be here.

0 (25m 20s):
My thanks to Eric. You can subscribe to this podcast in Apple podcast on Spotify or via your podcasting app of choice. Please also follow the show on Instagram. You can find us by searching for Recruiting Future. You can search all the past on that site. You can also subscribe to the monthly newsletter, recruiting Future feast and get the inside track about everything that’s coming up on the show. Thanks very much for listening. I’ll be back next time and I hope you’ll join me.

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