Finding Focus

Focus is not a natural human activity; it must be learned and perfected, inside and out. For example, anyone who has ever asked a four-year-old child to sit still for five minutes knows that this is a virtually impossible task. The body and mind need to move, and young children, not yet yoked by the social obligations that come with maturity, express their desire to shift and fidget with great predictability.

We may all grow older, but that internal desire to fidget and move still remains. It is an offshoot of the primordial need to be aware of and reactive to our environment, to be able to avoid danger and pounce upon opportunity as needed. Focus is too narrow to be of use as a survival tool.

This is bad news for harried professionals, desperately seeking a few moments of focus in the midst of a busy day. If by some chance quiet descends upon the workplace, we know it will not last long, for soon another email will arrive, another colleague or customer will come to call, or another issue will make its presence known. The tasks that require total concentration will get put off once again, resulting in a decrease in overall productivity and a corresponding dip in morale.

Attaining focus requires an ability to conquer both internal and external detractors, which, fortunately have one thing in common: people.

  1. To develop true focus, you first have to fend people off.

People are the sources of interruptions, and interruptions are external destroyers of focus.

You must basically be able to tell people to leave you alone for a set period of time. This is not as career-limiting as it sounds. Although colleagues may not sympathize with your busy-ness, their own self-interest will be comforted by your announcement of an end-time: “I will be available at 11:00” sounds much more accommodating than “go away and leave me alone.” By giving people a fixed “known” instead of a vague “unknown”, their expectations can be managed and their actions can be guided. Similarly, use your voicemail greeting to inform callers as to when they can expect a return call, and inform people verbally that you generally reply to emails and texts within an hour or so. Give them a sense of when they can expect attention from you. If you do not give them this guideline, they will revert to the automatic expectation of immediate response, which puts you back in the corner. The goal is to fend off intrusions by satisfying their fear of the unknown (as in “when will I get a reply?”) in advance.

This keep-away approach allows you to work guilt-free, knowing that the needs of your colleagues and customers have been proactively met; working guilt-free minimizes stress, which tends to maximize the distribution of nutrients and oxygen to the processing areas of the brain, which results in greater capacity to focus.

  1. Once you have successfully fended off external interrupters, you must next fend off internal distractors – these are self-initiated destroyers of focus, as follows:
  • Visual distraction: align your body and vision to allow only the work at hand to fill your field of vision. Looking up and around not only allows your mind to become distracted, but making eye contact with passers-by is the clearest of invitations for a drop-in visitor, not only now, but into the future as well. If you fear being perceived as anti-social when you adopt such a closed position, take the time to inform your colleague in advance as to what you are doing and why. They might be interested in adopting these practices themselves.
  • Auditory distraction: use headphones to play music, white noise or pink noise to mask the ambient sounds around you. Since most of us are not capable of tuning out the sounds around us, a “cone of concentration” is the next best thing. There is a terrific selection of music for working and concentrating available online, and even if your office does not allow streaming, many of these can be downloaded for playback later through your phone or music player. Headphones or ear buds, by the way, make excellent props that say “do not disturb.”
  • Moving to a neutral space such as a coffee shop also offers great potential for focus, since the ambient noise of a coffee shop is generally sufficiently neutral to become a curtain of comfortable sound.
  1. Know your attention span. People have different capacities for focus. Some people can work for hours without a break. Artists such as painters, composers, film editors and writers sometimes call this “flow” – the tunnel vision of creativity. Others call it “getting into the groove.” But if you find yourself needing a break after twenty minutes, do not despair. It is more important that you know yourself and the activities that you are capable of. For example, to work for twenty minutes and then to take a two-minute break, gives a type of pause and refreshment on par with rest between sets of exercise at the gym; it gives the body the opportunity to move forward without exhaustion. So, as paradoxical as it may sound, one of the best contributors to effective focus may actually be regular breaks. Just be sure these breaks are initiated and controlled by you, not someone else. That makes all the difference.
  2. Break your work up over days or weeks. If you are dealing with a long-term project that requires many hours of focused work, consider scheduling the work as a recurring activity, such as every weekday between 3:00 and 4:00. By making it an appointment in your calendar, this activity defends its existence against intruders such as other meetings or commitments; but more importantly, human memory is very good at picking up where it left off, thus minimizing setback and capitalizing on a “momentum of focus” that carries over from day-to-day.

To prove this concept, think about what you were doing “this time last week.” No matter what time of the day, or day of the week that you are reading this article, it is likely that if you think back to what you were doing exactly one week ago, you might find yourself asking the question, “was that really a week ago?” That is due to a variation of human situational memory that tends to build bridges across time, when recognizing familiar landmarks. The same reaction will happen when you revisit a place that you have not been to for a decade or more; familiarity and recall will make it seem like “just yesterday” that you were here, even if the trees have become larger and certain buildings have changed.

In sum, focus can be bridged the same way, across days and weeks, giving larger projects a chance at succeeding.

  1. Park extraneous thoughts, do not ignore them. If, while working on Task A, an idea regarding Task B pops into your head, then take a moment to write it down before continuing. This phenomenon is very likely, since the brain does a great deal of its processing obliquely, when not focusing on the problem at hand. Consequently, since your mind is not focusing on Task B, it is more relaxed about that task and is more likely to come up with ideas and solutions pertaining to it.

By acknowledging this idea and committing it to either paper or a saved file, you give yourself permission to let go of the idea and move on. By contrast, if you struggle to keep that idea in your head, you will do a disservice to both Tasks A and B, by reducing the processing capacity available for Task A, and ultimately forgetting the bright idea that you had for Task B.

Furthermore, by recording this good idea, you actually create space for additional good ideas, which becomes another paradox of great focus. By focusing on one task, you actually open yourself up to creativity on other task fronts as well.

Ultimately it must be recognized that focus is by and large a practiced skill. We as humans must remember how to do it, when to do it, and what external and internal detractors must be addressed and dealt with in order to set the stage for undisturbed processing to happen. This “practiced skill” will eventually lengthen the amount of time that you personally have for great focus, first, socially, by addressing the habits and expectations of the people around you, and next by flexing and strengthening the internal “muscles” of concentration, which, like all other muscles in the body, thrive and grow through increased use.

PowerPoint: 5 Reasons to Not Kill it

Dilbert: Property of Scott Adams

Dilbert (c) Scott Adams

For twenty years now, I have been an avid PowerPoint user. When I started as a standup speaker and presenter in 1994, most people were still using clear acetate foils, hand-positioned on an overhead projector. The adventurous few – those who could afford a luggable laptop and projector, used Harvard Graphics. Microsoft Office quickly swallowed the desktops of the world, and along with Word and Excel, we were sort of forced to start making presentations using PowerPoint.

Since then people have loved to hate it. “It stops presenters from connecting with the audience,” they say. “Meaningless bullet points remove the learning opportunity,” they say. “The screen takes center stage and the presenter disappears,” they say, “So let’s ban it.”

This article, by professor Bent Meier Sørensen, published in the academics’ newsmagazine The Conversation, summarizes the common complaints:

  • students read ahead in the handouts and get quickly bored with the visuals
  • professors or other speakers who have lost the attention of the audience hide behind the act of reading bullet points
  • the presentation is locked into a sequence that is designed by the presenter in advance, and offers no opportunity to move with the dynamic of the group.

All of this is true, but that’s not PowerPoint’s fault. That’s the fault of the presenter for not knowing the tool well enough.

Sørensen’s complaints, and those of the thousands of others can be easily rectified with just a little knowledge. So here are my five suggestions, based on two decades of standup speaking.

1. Ditch the bullet points and the text. Use PowerPoint for title cards and visuals only. In this instance, I agree with the detractors. No-one wants to hear the presenter read what they can all see up there, and besides, reading all your points at once becomes overload. Builds (revealing one bullet point at a time) quickly become tiring – they lost their appeal long ago. Instead, stash the bullet points in the speaker’s notes section where only you can see them. The Presenter View described below is an excellent dashboard visible only on the presenter’s laptop screen, and includes your speaker’s notes. This is like your own personal teleprompter. The audience sees a title card or a visual. You improvise off the bullet points in your speaker’s notes.

2. Ditch the handouts. Handouts are lousy because they give everything away. The audience gets to read ahead. A bored audience uses them to count down towards the end.  They look awful, and worst of all, they constrain you, the speaker, into a pre-set sequence, which as  Sørensen correctly identifies, robs both you and the audience of the creative dynamic that comes from conversation. So don’t give them handouts. Let them take their own notes. That’s a better learning tool anyway. If you don’t give them handouts, the audience will not know how many or how few slides you have, and they won’t feel cheated if you skip a few. If the slides are just title cards then they can write down the title and take their notes accordingly. For visuals, invite the audience to take photos of any great visuals with their own phone.

3. Get Interactive. No-one ever said you had to run your PowerPoint deck in a sequence from first to last. A great presentation should move with the comments or questions from the audience. If the conversation moves towards a point that is best illustrated by an image on slide no.19, and you are currently still on slide no. 2, you should be able to get to slide 19 effortlessly, without slogging quickly through the intervening seventeen. Can you do that? Of course you can. When you use Presenter View, your entire slide collection is laid out in a grid format. It is easy to click on the thumbnail of slide no. 19 and bring it up on screen without anyone knowing that it lives seventeen slides away. If you have a great memory and you know that the slide in question is no.19, you can also call it up by typing the digits 1 and 9 on your keyboard and hitting enter. Basically, this allows you to play your PowerPoint presentation like a piano, calling up slides on command rather than passively cycling through them.

4. Let the visuals help you. People need to look at something other than you. Sorry. Staring at a boring professor is what made students stupid long before PowerPoint took over that task. Today’s learners are used to seeing many visual stimuli. We all live with cellphones attached to our arms. We have to look at something. Besides, an image of a ship is a whole lot more effective than a presenter, with arms stretched out wide, saying, “Imagine this is a ship.” Sorry, that doesn’t work anymore. Visuals are there to enhance your presentation, not eclipse it. Obviously, product illustrations, charts and photographs cannot be done justice with mere words, even by the most erudite of speakers.

beeverBut concepts, too, do better with imagery. I use this image, a piece of excellent artwork by the chalk artist Julian Beever as an illustration in support of managing change. This is not a giant Coke bottle; it is a 3D illustration. Your eyes’ unwillingness to accept it as something other than what they think it is serves as my teaching aid to discuss change resistance. That’s what I mean by visuals helping out.

5. Use the blackout button. PowerPoint does not have to be onscreen all the time. In fact a huge dynamic shift happens when the screen goes intentionally dark. That’s when the focus of the room truly falls upon you the speaker, and it can be used to great effect. Once you need PowerPoint back, simply bring it back. The darken/undarken button is another feature on the Presenter View dashboard that is easy to access and use.

I could go on, talking about the importance of keeping design elements simple, the importance of rehearsing, and keeping to a limited amount of messages, but that has been written about elsewhere. But I have met very few presenters who are actually aware of these five powerful techniques for keeping control of a presentation and allowing to serve as an effective teaching aid.

Presenter-View-500x302The Presenter View that I have been referring to is an option found under the Slide Show menu of PowerPoint 2013, and in earlier versions. It only appears once you have plugged in to a projector and you have started the slideshow. It offers a collection of icon buttons for marking up the slides; revealing the full palette of slides; searching; and blacking out the projection. To the right, where it says “No Notes” is where your speaker’s notes/bullet points show up, if you have stashed them according to point no. 1, above. This Presenter View is only visible to you on your laptop. The audience only sees the currently selected slide.

The Future of Presenting

Another of Sørensen’s complaints that I agree with, is that PowerPoint does not allow any way for students to take their own notes, unless they receive the dreaded handouts in advance. I have been searching for, and even trying to invent my own solution to this problem for years. In essence: how can I send the exact slides that I am showing, across to my students in the sequence that I am presenting them? In other words a custom handout based on what they are seeing? The solution to this seems to be happening finally. A German company called SideFlight seems to offer such a solution, using Wi-Fi and the cloud as the courier. Although I have not yet had a chance to try their product out live, it promises to deposit each slide that you show, onto the screens of every participant in the room, where they can annotate and take notes to their heart’s delight. Once this type of technology takes root, we will be able to dispense with static handouts forever, and will be also able to fully capitalize on a dynamic learning environment, supported by, rather than hindered by PowerPoint.

So, I guess I agree with much of what Sørensen complains about. But I don’t agree that the entire technology should be banned solely because no-one read the manual. This would be a tragic case of killing the messenger, when in my opinion and experience, PowerPoint is actually a great messenger indeed.

Time Management: Clearing the Backlog

This is an excerpt from the second edition of Cool-Time: A Hands-On Plan for Managing Work and Balancing Time, To order, please visit

Clearing the Backlog: Blitz, Erode and Plan

A backlog, by its very definition represents a doubling of workload, in that today’s tasks must be taken care of in addition to those tasks that still remain uncompleted from previous days.

It feels most desirable for anyone taking on new time management skills to clear the backlog and start from a clean slate. Perhaps this is the right way for you, but perhaps not.

Very often people take the blitz approach by committing to a wholesale clean-up. Perhaps they come in to the office on a Saturday to work a few hours and get all the outstanding stuff out of the way – basically an extended version of focus time, held outside of work hours. Other examples of this activity can include a tidying blitz of a house, room or yard. Basically do it all, and do it all now.

The key benefit of a blitz is that the backlog is quickly cleared. The drawback, though, is that a habit has not yet been established, which means that a new backlog might start almost immediately.

An alternative to the blitz technique is the erosion technique, in which a backlog is eliminated one piece at a time in parallel with current tasks. This of course depends on the urgency of the tasks in the backlog, but it helps develop a habit that will eliminate the development of further back logs. Some examples:

  • A backlog of already-read emails that need to be filed: each email that is read and processed from this point on is filed away, and at the same time, one email from the pile is also filed.
  • A messy office or room: each item that is used is put away immediately when finished with, and at the same time, one item from the pile is also put away.
  • A backlog of tasks: with each new task that is performed, a task from the pile is also performed.

Any way you look at it, clearing a backlog takes time, whether it is done as a blitz or an erosion. The two primary objectives are to eliminate the backlog and to prevent it growing again. If it threatens to do so, despite your best efforts, then it means there is simply too much work to be handled, and that is when delegation or negotiation of workload must take over.

Comments? Please share below.


The Internet of Everything and Africa

In addition to my own posts, I also write for CloudTweaks, an authority on cloud computing. Cloudtweaks is currently working with Cisco, who have released and exciting new thought leadership platform called InnovateThink. I have been asked to contribute some material to this project, and it is an honor to do so.

My most recent article looks at the way that the connected technologies of the Internet of Everything are making changes in the lives and economiesof Africans, who have long struggled to keep pace amid war, poverty and difficult weather. I hope it is appropriate. I would love feedback (positive or negative) from people who lived in, or have lived in an African nation, and who perhaps have experienced change through technology.  Here is an excerpt:

Digital banking, for example, has freed workers in places such as Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Soweto, from the dangers of carrying cash through lawless areas, as well as allowing them easier and safer transfer of funds to relatives with lower remittance fees and the elimination of the need for physical travel. Cellphone-based banking has also cut down on corruption and illegal “dipping” made by employers. The dual benefit of cloud-based money transfer not only assists individuals in keeping their cash safe, but stands also to coax wary Africans from storing their savings under their mattresses – an amount estimated to be the equivalent of two billion dollars in South Africa alone. Additional funds feeding the banking sector hold the promise to trickle through to the establishment of stronger commercial sectors and social programs.

With the agricultural sector currently accounting for seventy percent of Africa’s total employment and thirty percent percent of its GDP, technological innovations in areas such as drought prediction, low-cost machinery for quickly draining flooded fields, smartphone apps that assist with the health of herd cattle, or point-of-sale transactions and supply chain management are the first steps towards growing the economies of African countries, moving them towards stability and greater competitiveness on the world stage.

To read the full article, please visit CloudTweaks here.

IDG-DELL Article on Choose Your Own Device (CYOD)

In addition to my own posts, I also write for CloudTweaks, an authority on cloud computing. I was asked by Cloudtweaks clients IDG and DELL  to write a quick blog which will become part of their End-To-End Solutions group on LinkedIn.  My topic is the shift from BYOD to CYOD in the corporate, cloud-based workspace. Here is an excerpt:

This dilemma – how to satisfy and engage employees while still protecting corporate assets is being answered by a new trend – a hybrid in and of itself – between the open market of BYOD and the more rigid, traditional world of company-issued laptops and phones. In this new approach, employers make available a range of devices that vary in terms of brand and functionality, and which have been fully loaded and prepared, in terms of virus/malware protection, network access and secure compatibility with the company’s network and cloud management structure. These devices are offered as a selection from which the employees are allowed to make a selection. This concept is called choose your own device (CYOD), and many industry watchers are confident that this will soon eclipse BYOD as a milestone in smart mobility management.

To read the full article, click here.


Making Time for Reviews

August 20, 2014

In addition to my own posts, I also contribute to Time Management Magazine. My post for September 2014 has to do with the importance of making time for reviews, including self-assessment. Here is an excerpt:

Back in the 1980’s New York City had a mayor by the name of Ed Koch. He was generally well-liked, and was instrumental in helping clean up the city, and was a very public figure. His trademark greeting was to walk up to average people on the street and say “How am I doing?” This obvious flip-around on the normal way of greeting people symbolized his ongoing desire for feedback from constituents, tourists and anyone who happened to be in the city. It was a request for an impromptu performance review, and it had the double benefit of both an informal poll of his performance as well as a savvy piece of marketing as the mayor that cares.

Mayor Koch, and other political figures like him, take a risk, realizing that the answer will not always be positive. But knowing where dissatisfaction exists represents the first step towards fixing what needs to be fixed, and building what needs to be built. This is doubly important in situations where the source of dissatisfaction – the thing needing to be improved – is currently a total unknown.

Reviews, then, form part of the project management required to get things done. They are an essential component that appear at first glance to take time, but in the long run save much more.

To read the full article for IOS (Apple), itunes…. or for Android….

Time Management and Willpower

July 25, 2014

In addition to my own posts, I also contribute to Time Management Magazine. My post for August 2014 has to do with willpower. Here is an excerpt:

People who seek advice on time management often tend to lust after the concept of winning back more hours in the day in order to get things done. “If only there was a way to freeze time,” they say, or “If I could just squeeze another hour or two out of the day, I could get caught up.”
Well, maybe, but consider the following non-time-related issue:

A friend comes to you and says, “I have a problem with credit cards. I am maxed out, I am paying hundreds of dollars per month in payments and I feel I am getting nowhere. What should I do?”

Many people, in seeking to answer such a question might reply, “cut up your credit card,” or get a loan or a line of credit and pay off the balance right now.” These are two highly practical suggestions, but they will not solve the problem. They will not achieve the desired result.

To read the full article for IOS (Apple), click here or for Android click here.

The Internet of Everything and Corporate Life

July 17, 2014

In addition to my own posts, I also write for CloudTweaks, an authority on cloud computing. Cloudtweaks is currently working with Cisco, who have released and exciting new thought leadership platform called InnovateThink. I have been asked to contribute some material to this project, and it is an honor to do so.

My seventh article looks at the way that corporations – business of any size – can leverage the technologies and processes within the Internet of Everything to learn more about employees’ hidden talents, and to tailor jobs and tasks more closely to their abilities.  Here is an excerpt:

How, for example, could a regional manager identify a great candidate who is both willing and able to take on a new and risky project? How might the skills required – leadership, comfort with risk, diligence, delegation, discipline – be truly demonstrated? Social media sites such as Facebook are natural places to discover such abilities, not through overt verbal job titles, but through actual real-life proof. For example, consider an employee who reveals on her Facebook site that she loves to scuba dive and is certified to teach scuba to others. The connection between the ability to lead people through risky behavior in this way might not show up on a traditional personality assessment or performance review, but it is evident in her real life activities.

How about those individuals who are natural communicators? The ones who, for whatever reason, everyone turns to in order to get things done? Not because they are workaholics, but because they have a natural ability to network, to put people in touch with other people, to move, shake and make things happen? Technology that identify these types of people as well as fostering the same types of connective behavior in others will strongly assist in breaking down silos and enhancing the productivity and profitability potential of a company or department.

To read the full article, please visit CloudTweaks here.

The Internet of Everything and the Public Sector

July 10, 2014

In addition to my own posts, I also write for CloudTweaks, an authority on cloud computing. Cloudtweaks is currently working with Cisco, who have released and exciting new thought leadership platform called InnovateThink. I have been asked to contribute some material to this project, and it is an honor to do so.

My sixth article looks at the way governments, or more precisely the public sector are taking advantage of the The Internet of Everything to deliver new services to its citizens. Here is an excerpt:

If you live in Chicago and you want to know when the street sweeper is coming around so you can move your car and avoid getting a ticket, well, there’s an app for that. It’s a simple yet elegant solution produced by one of an army of app developers that the city’s public service has engaged to capitalize on the ever-growing usefulness of the Internet of Everything, defined by Cisco as the juncture of people, process, data and things.

Traditionally the public sector has been maligned as a place and mindset that is far from the cutting edge, with bureaucracy and partisan politics dominating. But increasingly an opposite perspective can be seen. Given the enormity and variety of the responsibilities held by government, the constant scarcity of funds, combined with increased calls for transparency and accountability, the opportunities offered by the connected technologies of the Internet of Everything are both appealing and fiscally prudent.

To read the full article, please visit CloudTweaks here.


Time Management: Willpower Through Words

In addition to my own posts, I also contribute to Time Management Magazine. My post for July has to do with willpower. Here is an excerpt:

Picture this: you’re hungry. You’re walking along and you spy a fast-food restaurant. You know that the food they offer is not as good for you as it should be. High numbers in the calorie, cholesterol and sodium columns to be sure. If you care about such things, then you know this food is not really right for you. But it is very hard to resist. Fast food is manufactured to taste and smell wonderful. There’s a science to all of it, right down to the choice of colours used in the branding: that wonderful shade of red that human beings look to when they are in search of something to satisfy the hunger urge – it’s there, on the signs, the posters and the cups.

The people behind the science of fast food know that urges are stronger than common sense. Instinctive desires win out. People always give in to emotion and to desire, since these things are simply stronger. Using willpower to try to stick to some better plan is a herculean task quite simply because it is not natural for a person to act consciously against one’s own urges. Urges are based on instinct. Instinct is based on survival. Ultimately pure biological life relies on listening to instinct.

So willpower doesn’t stand a chance. Or does it?

The best way to avoid succumbing to the urge to devour a calorie-laden, fat-laden fast food meal is to inoculate against the urge by feeding on logic in advance. This technique applies to other areas of life as well, of course, including time management.

To read the full article for IOS (Apple), click here or for Android click here.