Menu Close

Balancing distraction and focus

Terry Frost

How many times do you intend to fully focus on a task, but end up being swept up by social media or lost in your inbox?

Some warn that this almost universal trend of distraction is plundering our powers of concentration and diluting our breadth of knowledge. But it doesn’t need to be such a serious problem if you employ the right tactics, writes Carsten Lund Pedersen for MIT Sloan Management Review.

Rapid technological and social change are inevitable attention-stealers. Business leaders, thinkers and innovators need to learn, not only to embrace them, but also how to put them in their place.


Pedersen pinpoints the two distinctive traits that make up a desirable balance and what he calls the “distraction-focus paradox”:

  • the ability to absorb diverse information from a wealth of sources, and
  • the ability to focus intensely.

He insists this combination is increasingly valuable as the development of social media and mobile computing romps forward.

So, how can you fine tune them so they work for you, effectively and harmoniously?

1) Widen your networks: broaden your knowledge. We may be more connected than ever, but our networks can be devoid of diversity and limited to the individuals, publications or organisations that share our views. Injecting variety into the thinking you connect with is something you can train yourself to do and will be both an education and an inspiration.

“Research has repeatedly shown that diversity in mental models – that is, how you interpret and see problems – leads to better problem solving and more innovation.”

2) Learn to practise deep focus

Our ability to give undivided attention to critical tasks is diminished by a constant bombardment from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and so on. Do you really need to read all those listicles and take personality tests? Make a point of separating the wheat from the chaff.

Pedersen describes meaningful focus as the “deliberate deployment of your attention. You lock in, rather than zone out.” And author Cal Newport argues that the ability to focus on a demanding task is the way to differentiate yourself in a distracted world.

3) Know yourself and get the balance right. Excessive focus or scattered input can be as damaging as too little of each. If you assess your own tendencies you can work on getting the balance right.

Pedersen advocates beefing up your T-shaped qualities – “The vertical leg of the T conveys focus (expertise and insight) while the horizontal one conveys open-mindedness (empathy and collaborative curiosity).”

  • If you’re weak on gathering broad-based information, deliberately research the opposite perspective of the issue to challenge your current knowledge.
  • If you’re easily distracted and poorly focused, switch off your phone notifications for defined chunks of time that you can commit to reading and thinking.
  • Work closely with colleagues whose skills complement your own to get a new perspective.

Concentrating your attention in the right place, with the right intensity, while also being sure you open your eyes to a diverse range of information, offers the best combination to prosper in this ever-changing technological age.

Source Article: Managing The Distraction-Focus Paradox
Author(s): Carsten Lund Pedersen