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Curt Steinhorst: Let’s Use This Time To Embrace Being Human Again

The silver lining of social distancing is better human connection

Social distancing comes with a silver lining – the chance to rediscover meaningful connections

If there is one thing we can all agree on in 2020 – it’s that it’s been a year of extensive and widespread change. Although our experiences have varied, most of us have had our daily living and work routines uprooted by the pandemic and the many uncertainties that came with it.

Despite the many unknowns and anxieties that have been present during this time, this week’s attention expert, Curt Steinhorst, challenges us to discover the opportunity and perspective that could only be gained through these most difficult of times.

Curt Steinhorst, is the best-selling author of Can I Have Your Attention?, speaker, founder of Focuswise, and a regular contributor to Forbes. After years of studying the impact of tech on behavior, Curt founded Focuswise, a consultancy that equips organizations to overcome the distinct challenges of the constantly-connected workplace.

This week we caught up with him to learn a little more about the techniques, tools, and strategies he has used to cope both at work and home during these uncertain times.

Many face the challenges of working from home right now, especially work and life balance. What advice do you have?

The silver lining of this period is our opportunity to view this season as a chance to hit the reset button and finally train our focus habits. If we think about it, we’re living the same story, only with different scenery. So, in a way, there is no work-life balance anymore. We’re all living one life where work and life occupy the same space and time.

If you’re like me, you’ve likely experienced perpetual distraction and constant interruption while working from home. We are surrounded by home chores, family dynamics, teenage drama, and homeschooling. We’re left wondering: “Where do I put my attention?” It feels overwhelming because the lines that once separated our lives into manageable compartments are now blurred.

But let me ask this: Is this very different than what we were experiencing in our offices? Once smart devices entered our world, we no longer had clear boundaries. We go to the beach, and we work. We go to our kid’s soccer game, and we work. We go to the dinner table, and we work. We go to the office, and we do anything but work.

Now, the scenes have simply been reversed. Instead of bringing the “distractions” of outside life into the office, we now have the office “interrupting” our home life. Our smart devices are still stealthy agents of distraction, sneaking in to interrupt our place and focus.

At Focuswise, we like to say that focus is the marriage of attention and intention. We’re seeing now, as always, the need to set our intentions and stick to them is crucial. The ability to direct our attention wisely at a given time, in a given place, within a certain community is a learned skill. This “Great Pause” is a perfect opportunity to start fresh and reprogram how we manage our attention to achieve focus, both as individuals and as teams.

I believe that social distancing has actually served to reinforce the important truth that we can’t automate real and deep human connection.

But it’s also important to extend some grace to yourself at this time. It’s okay to take some time to embrace being human again. I’ve been encouraging my clients and my team to reclaim what we’ve lost in the rapid-fire of this past decade: our focus on who and what matters most.

During this time, you may feel the guilt of “not doing enough.” Thank smart devices for that dynamic. In a world of unlimited access, we feel pressure to be always-available, always-working, and always-on, performing on-demand at 100% for the boss, our customers, and even those in our personal lives. We typically work at such a pace, sprinting from one (often pointless) meeting to another, that we have derailed our sense of balance, perspective, and often, purpose. So if you’ve slowed to a human pace, embrace it; don’t judge yourself harshly.

Humans make terrible machines. But that’s okay because machines make terrible humans. We need to replace the fear of not being hyperactive (like a machine) with a balance that allows perspective and reflection (like a human).

Allow yourself to accept that humanity (with all its beauty and quirks) will always be necessary in the workplace. I believe that social distancing has actually served to reinforce the important truth that we can’t automate real and deep human connection. We humans bring something distinct and irreplaceable to the workforce. So while at home, during this season, enjoy that glass of wine or sip of bourbon instead of sitting in commuter traffic.

What is one piece of advice you would give to someone who is struggling to find focus or motivation during this distracting time?

I encourage all of us to put this struggle into perspective. Distraction has been a problem much longer than this pandemic. Distractions, whether too many meetings or emails or priorities, are not new.

Try this simple mantra:

“Focus is possible. I can focus in this storm because I’ve been through storms before. And I’ve lived to tell the tale.”

We need to replace the fear of not being hyperactive (like a machine) with a balance that allows perspective and reflection (like a human).

When do you find it most difficult to focus? How do you overcome this?

I struggle to direct my attention productively when I fail to fuel my focus and account for my human limits properly. For example, when we skip breakfast or lunch, fail to take breaks, and don’t sleep properly, we’re actually undoing the work of the brain – work it needs to focus. That’s why I suggest we build healthy rhythms into your day.

When you’re stuck, I encourage you to get up and move. Get out of your current space. Go outside! Did you know your brain is happiest in nature? It puts us into a “soft fascination” state. Take, for example, a walk in the woods. Although there are different things to see, the stream of incoming stimuli is so slow and mellow that our minds feel simultaneously engaged and at rest. It’s a mixture of the new and the familiar that works to quiet the mind and gives our voluntary attention a break. Spending time in nature feels great because it relieves stress, anxiety, and depression.

If you can’t get out, at least let nature in. Natural lighting improves focus. One of my colleagues begins each day by opening the blinds. It signals to the whole family that it’s time to start the day. At night, they close the blinds to indicate that it’s time to rest and sleep. That’s a great combination of healthy rhythm and the power of natural daylight to aid in focus.

For my night owl friends, I should mention that it’s always “right” to find a time of day that works best for you to get important work done. Preserve your peak hours for your main goals. When your energy is naturally low, schedule routine things like emails and phone calls (or maybe that restorative walk in nature). Know this: work doesn’t HAVE to happen between 9-5. That’s just when it has been traditionally assigned. Question all of your assumptions about how and when your work is happening or should happen by experimenting with variables that could increase productivity or allow for greater integration of mental and physical energy.

Your brain is happiest in nature
Photo by Can Aslan on Unsplash

How do you deal with the emotional aspects of low productivity? For example, lack of motivation, feeling stressed or overwhelmed, feeling unsafe or uncertain, etc.?

That’s an excellent question. We often underestimate the emotional aspect of focus. Here are of my best practices for understanding what’s holding you back:

Think about the why.

More than a third of us say we don’t have time to reflect on or process the work we do. Maybe it’s because we’re not intentional about it. Find time to answer as honestly as you can: What did I do today? Who did it help? Why does it matter?

Turn up your gratitude.

It’s so easy for us to get wrapped up in the things that frustrate us, that are going wrong, that cause us pain. We’re wired to focus on the negative. Unfortunately, that works against our focus everywhere else. Make a list of things for which you’re grateful. At dinner, mention the best things you experienced that day, and key into what was good for others.

Link yourself to some motivation.

For example, it helps to reinforce your reasons to pay attention. A friend of mine, at the beginning of this pandemic, asked if I wanted to join a group challenge. Every day, we each had to set our intentions, and we lost $3 if we didn’t get them done. I had no idea how much $3 could motivate me! This little exercise revealed to me how much of our attention can be given each day to places and things other than what we intended.

Avoid the jealousy trap!

In the age of social media, it’s easy to play the comparison game. A wise friend used to say, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” So, I realize now there are two ways I can approach this.

First, I can go online and compare myself to those who are “killing it.” Social media posts are full of “pandemic superheroes” —spotless home, amazing meals, expert homeschooling, fabulously fit, eating right, running marathons, and writing a best-seller — all while killing it at their work! On occasion, it may motivate me.

On the other hand, if I’m not careful, I can ignore the reality that those people have unseen help that I don’t have, and this is hard right now. There are new challenges for all of us. There is uncertainty, and it’s difficult. A friend who is a trauma therapist shared that if we don’t admit it’s difficult and face it, we’ll carry this period of hardship with us all day (and perhaps longer). So let this come into focus: things have changed around us, and it’s okay to be struggling.

I’m attempting to embrace both mindsets right now. I’m saying: There’s a healthy balance. I want to grow and do better (based on the inspiration of others), but there’s also a need to acknowledge the challenges. Still, it’s a process of adaptation; you don’t have to be perfect at it. I was grateful when my friend (and US Olympic gold gymnast), Carly Patterson said recently in an interview, “You don’t win a medal for Best Quarantine.”

Tell yourself a better story.

“Neurons that fire together, wire together” — so why not choose what gets wired? If you catch yourself thinking, “I don’t want to do this,” try replacing that with, “I love my work. This is a privilege. After I finish, I’ll get a beer.” Seriously, say it out loud. Then repeat it.

This even works as a team. This season can be a time of fear and paralysis, or it can be the time for creativity and innovation. That’s exciting! For example, for the past two years, I’ve had a program in mind that I believe is innovative and perfectly adapted to these times. Given my normally jammed calendar and my heavy travel schedule, I had no idea how I would bring it to life. In this Great Pause, all that has changed, because we’ve all been given the gift of time we didn’t expect. A little bit of focus will help us get the most from it.

In my case, it was the perfect time for our team to bring this program to life. And we have. It’s something new called the FocusFit Challenge. The concept is a four-week program that addresses focus as if it were a muscle that, with regular exercise, builds strength and stamina, is more easily and effectively applied, and better manages distraction. Each week, we highlight one of the four pillars of focus: Clarity, Capacity, Curiosity, and Community. I am very excited to launch the pilot program in partnership with a Fortune 50 client next month.

The question for you is, what have you been thinking about for the past few years that you’ve not gotten to yet? Work on getting clarity about it and then use what time remains in this period to get it done.

We all need space to step back and process. There is no other way to gain clarity, innovate, create, and navigate what’s ahead — it only comes by making room for it. Now we have that time.

What changes, if any, have you made to your environment during this time?

Have you found it difficult to set aside intentional space to think creatively and strategically? You’re not alone. Even in a pandemic, it’s easy to avoid this important aspect of focus. It turns out that I can always find a reason (i.e., an excuse) to avoid creating the space I need to be alone, especially at home with the kids.

I’m being intentional right now about creating a “focus vault” where I can sit and think about the future. We all need space to step back and process. There is no other way to gain clarity, innovate, create, and navigate what’s ahead — it only comes by making room for it. We have the time now, but we’re still conditioned to avoid it.

That’s why I try to start and end my day on my porch, where there is no computer. While there, I unplug. This little piece of the day brings great peace to me, as I begin and conclude my day cultivating gratitude. In the morning, I try to envision my day and what I hope to accomplish. In the evening, I reflect on how it went and on what I’ve learned.

By the way, I keep a sticky note on my desk that says, “What did you learn today?” It has become a monitor of my attention. When things are chaotic, and I’m running fast, it’s enough to make me pause and gather my intention again before I get to the end of the day. It’s a reminder to leave space here and there in my day to reflect and process.

Space matters, because environment impacts our focus.

Of course, space matters, because environment impacts our focus. It helps to tie space to the task. Create a dedicated workspace. When you’re there, you’re working. When you leave, you stop working. Establish that place, and most importantly, create a ritual to help you leave that space to end your workday. You might do that by writing the next day’s to-do list, then making a cup of tea and sitting on the patio for a few minutes, or grabbing a leash and taking the dog for a walk, before thinking about dinner, kids, and chores.

One of my team members has shifted the purpose of different parts of his home. In what would traditionally be a living room, he now exercises and does yoga. His dining room is where he works during the day, and his dining room table is his desk. His bedroom is now a relaxation room where he reads, sleeps, and watches television. When you tie the space to the task like this, it signals the brain, “I should be doing this here.

purple mugs and planter
Photo by A6 Reflex on Unsplash

Have you made any changes to your digital habits during this time? Why or why not?

News flash: Virtual fatigue is real. As we begin to experience it, I recommend we look to more tactile solutions for focus. Think old school.

For example, I keep a scratch pad at my desk. As things come to mind, I write them down. If I’m looking at the dusty baseboards, I write a note: “clean the baseboards this weekend.” Otherwise, I’ll get fixated on it. Pretty soon, I’m rummaging in the broom closet for a Swiffer, and I’m taking care of that problem while my actual priorities go untended. The simple process of capturing a note about baseboards allows me to postpone that action and keep my focus on what matters in the now. Later, when I have a few minutes (such as while I’m rebooting my computer or cleaning up my desk for the evening), my note is there to remind me.

Recently, my director of operations gave me a Pomodoro clock for my birthday. The Pomodoro Technique is a time management system that encourages people to work in sprints, using the time they have rather than letting that time work against them. I turn the clock, and it sets a timer for 5 minutes, 25 minutes, or 45 minutes. I can ignore everything else and devote myself to one thing exclusively. In 25 minutes of intense concentration, you can make a lot more progress than if you let yourself drift across emails, text messages, and updating project management lists. Pomodoro helps me honor the time I do have.

Diversify your entertainment beyond streaming music or videos. It’s tempting to use tech for all things right now, yet this is the ideal time to go low-tech.

In this time of isolation, be sure to use your voice and talk to people. We don’t have the normal camaraderie of co-workers sitting next to us right now. Pick up the phone and call your co-worker, especially if you find yourself spinning wheels on an email.

I encourage families as a whole to diversify your entertainment beyond streaming music or videos. It’s tempting to use tech for all things right now, yet this is the ideal time to go low-tech. Read a book, solve a puzzle, play a game, plant a garden together — get away from screens to have some fun!

There’s plenty of technology at work. And speaking of that, some of us in the new Zoom world are spending our days on endless virtual conference calls. I now spend about five hours a day on Zoom calls. A common question I get from teams is, “How do we improve our team focus in Zoom meetings?”

It’s a popular notion that large virtual meetings are a good idea, but I suggest the opposite. Avoid the large group meeting because it’s a wading pool of distraction and bad conversation. So start by shrinking the number.

Next, you don’t have to stay on video. It’s great to feel connected and see people, but it’s also great to not be stuck staring at a screen the entire time. Audio meetings are fine for many topics. So turn off the video, get up, and move around. You’ll likely focus better this way, too.

Finally, you don’t have to talk about coronavirus every time. It’s all we’re talking about. We feel a need to begin every call with: “How are you? How are you feeling?” Adopt a once-a-week check-in with the group; then spend the rest of the week on business as usual.

What are critical things a leader can do to help their teams when they’re spread out, feeling scattered, or disengaged?

Disengagement isn’t new. When I was researching my book, long before the pandemic, I found that 70% of the workforce was not actively engaged in their work. This means they are bored and unhappy, which leads to unfocused and unproductive employees.

Here’s the challenge that we face right now as leaders: We’re living in a moment that is largely marked by uncertainty in nearly every dimension. Focus is needed now more than ever. It’s more than just a “coping mechanism” to get through this season. True focus is knowing what deserves our attention and giving ourselves to things that we can control. Thus, it’s key that we have clarity. Is your team clear on what matters?

As a leader, you have to define your situation right now in ways that allow your team to take action. For my team, we had to move away from the big, long, huge goals to create concise, weekly, actionable items for every role. We use a shared group board to track short-term projects, and we meet more often (because priorities are evolving and changing) so that we can have clear visibility about what we are aiming toward and how we can get it done. This gives us a chance to move forward, instead of feeling confused and overwhelmed.

A leader must also help every person on the team understand the importance of the goal we’ve set, and –even more critically– how their role is crucial for creating solutions in this crisis. Troops do better in a war when they understand the outcome and their role in achieving it. It has never been easier to miss that. It’s time to inspire and engage the team — to help them see how and why they and their work are important. It may mean they need to perform their job in a normal capacity to liberate others who tackle difficult emerging issues on the front line. But that “keep the business running” assignment is important and needs to be seen as such.  Make sure your team can fill in these blanks with powerful, true answers:

  • I matter because (x)
  • This work matters because (y)
  • They — our clients — matter because (z)

We focus when we know it’s worth our time and effort to pay attention. Knowing how and why we’re valuable helps us fuel that focus.

Your purpose in life does not come down to your job.

What tips or tools have you found most useful during this time?

When it comes to your workday, develop a Mister Rogers routine. Remember how he’d come in the door and change his shoes and cardigan? Then, when he left, he’d do it all over again. A normal routine will train your brain when it’s time to focus and when it’s time to call it a day.

Imagine what a focused day might look like for you. Envision a healthy routine: Get up and make your bed. Otherwise, it’s easy to crawl back in on the hard days. Don’t dive into work from the moment you get up. There’s no need to fill your normal commute time with work. Your purpose in life does not come down to your job. Start with meditation, reading, a walk, or an at-home workout. Enjoy some quality time with your family.

Shower and brush your teeth. Get dressed. Wear clothes you chose the night prior, to avoid decision fatigue first thing. Make important days “important” by dressing up like you were attending the meeting in person. It’s like setting out a game-day uniform to remind you of the big game. Even adding work-from-home shoes to my daily wardrobe has been a game-changer. I put them on as a “cue” to start my workday, and I take them off when it’s time to relax in the evening. Throughout the day, be sure to take breaks, have coffee, and eat lunch.

When it comes to family, give your child your full attention in frequent small doses. When your child rushes in to tell you something, give her a few seconds of full attention. Look her right in the eyes, ask her some questions, and listen to the answer. Use body language that shows complete attention, like putting your phone down. While you listen to her answers, think of how you are going to redirect her.

Setting boundaries with kids around your work routine requires patience, collaboration, and flexibility. You’ll be most successful when you’ve got buy-in from the kids and if they understand that this is a team effort and they are helping generate the family income by giving you space to work. Kids do not like to feel powerless or stuck. If they feel included and supported in the process of you working from home, it’s likely to go more smoothly for everyone.

Communicate with your kids about what comes next in a day. If you’ve got a two-hour work block scheduled and they are working on homework or playing independently, make sure that they know that what comes next is a bike ride together, or some other fun activity that they can anticipate. The work block has a finite end to it. Then, family time will take over for a while.

Every cloud has a silver lining
Photo by Tarik Haiga on Unsplash

Earlier I mentioned our new FocusFit Challenge. It’s a four-week program that asks for 15 minutes of your day. Once a week, it involves group discussion. We’ve worked to develop the most powerful Focuswise training and tools to help teams take back control of their time, energy, and attention – and to focus it on what matters most, resulting in greater productivity, engagement, and innovation.

Thus. I’ve been using the tools we’ve developed. I’ve been practicing what I preach. It’s helped me to imagine what health looks like. FocusFit means:

  • Being in control, clear in vision, and confident about what matters most.

  • Being intentional about where you direct your attention and why.

  • Being realistic, knowing the limits of your capacity, and setting expectations accordingly. 

  • Being an influencer and able to leverage your attention into work that creates impact.

  • Being equipped, armed with simple but effective tools to combat relentless distractions, interruptions, and overload.

I’m hopeful that this picture of focus endures even past this pause.

Curt Steinhorst

Curt Steinhorst is on a mission to rescue us from our distracted selves.

Diagnosed with ADD as a child, Curt knows intimately the challenges companies face to keep the attention of today’s distracted workforce and customer. He has coached executives, TV personalities, and well-known professional athletes on how to effectively communicate and create focus when they speak to audiences, lead their employees, and engage their customers.

You can follow Curt’s work on his website and connect with him via Twitter and LinkedIn.