We are repeatedly told that in business, focus is essential to success. Not many of us – especially the more creative and entrepreneurial types – do it particularly well. Or maybe I just attract the clients who don’t – I have two in particular who are constantly calling me to run the latest great opportunity by me. Don’t get me wrong – if they had 72 working hours in every day, then a good number of their ideas really would be great. But they don’t; like you and me, they have to make do with just sixteen hours or so. So I’m forever reminding them to stay focused.
I thought it might be useful to explain a bit of the science behind why focus is important. And don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you that it’s because you get what you focus on – well, not exactly anyway.
The first issue comes from US Professor of Psychology and Management Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who concluded that we have available to us through our senses around 2 million ‘bits’ of information per second. The second, first posited by George Miller in 1956, is that we can only process 7 plus or minus two ‘chunks’ of information (= c. 134 ‘bits’) at any given time. If we were simultaneously conscious of all the data coming at us, we’d go insane trying to process it all.
So, according to NLP studies, the 2m ‘bits’ are filtered by our subconscious, through three main mechanisms:
- Delete what’s not of immediate importance or relevance
- Distort what doesn’t fit our paradigm, until it does
- Generalise it into things that we can recognise
Why does that make focus important? Well, apart from keeping us sane (and stopping us trying to do too much at once, and not doing any of it as well as we could), focus is what determines which seven plus or minus two ‘chunks’ each second get into our awareness for conscious processing. What gets in is 7 ± 2 chunks that are relevant to what we’re focussing on – the rest simply passes us by.
So if you’re trying to make a go of half-a-dozen different business opportunities, on average the best you can hope for at any one time is that you’ll become aware of 1½ chunks of information that are relevant to each (assuming you’re operating at the ‘plus 2’ end of the scale; 7+2=9 / 6 opportunities = 1.5 each). Now let’s think about someone who’s working on just one opportunity – even if he can only handle 5 (7 minus 2) chunks – i.e. he’s operating at only just over half the level you are – he’s still getting over 3 times as much relevant information to make a success of that business as you are. And they do say, knowledge is power.
That’s without even starting to think about how your market perceives you if you’re coming to them with a different offer every time they see you, or how much time you’re wasting on sub-optimal opportunities. More on those later. For now, just focus on how much of the information that could be relevant to your best business opportunity is just passing you by, because you’re cluttering your mind with too many “opportunities”.
Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1990). ‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’. New York: Harper and Row.
Miller, G. A. (1956). ‘The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information.’ Psychological Review, 63, 81-97