In order to perform at the highest level, it's more important than ever to focus on living in the present.
"I think the present moment is so underrated. It sounds so ordinary, but we spend so little time in the present that it is anything but ordinary. Our mind is our most precious and valuable resource that we depend upon to be creative, focused, spontaneous, and perform at our very best in everything that we do, and yet we don't take any time to look after it. We spend more time looking after our clothes, cars, and hair than our mind."
This got me thinking about the importance of being fully present during my whirlwind days of back-to-back calls and meetings, and how much bigger an impact I can have when I'm fully focused and not distracted by other thoughts or tech devices.
Below, I've outlined five keys to maintaining focused attention and spending more time in the moment.
1. Provide thoughtful and constructive input.
Technology devices present a tempting distraction to many people who live in the digital fire hose. However, not being focused or fully present can work against you. Misreading the issue being raised or question being asked, or making shortsighted assumptions about a problem or solution--these are common unproductive outcomes of not paying attention to the big picture.
The most thoughtful investors and board members I've seen in action always make it apparent that they are fully present. They listen deeply and ask for missing information. They try to understand the interests and concerns that are driving an entrepreneur in what he or she is trying to accomplish. They guide the conversation by acknowledging (not necessarily agreeing with) what others have said, and they push toward some kind of clear and constructive resolution to whatever issue is being addressed. In these situations, I've found there is a lot of power in using the word "and" instead of "but" to build a bridge from one person's perspective to your own.
2. Remember the power of preparation in problem solving.
Most people take time to prepare for a talk or presentation, but it amazes me how few people take the time to prepare in a calm, thoughtful way for problem solving (or negotiation--just another form of problem solving). Most people aren't at their most creative in the midst of an intense discussion, and they end up looking like a deer in headlights when they have to make a decision on the spot. Spending time in advance thinking creatively about the key issues and how to address the interests of the other parties can be incredibly valuable.
In my prior work as a negotiator, we'd recommend that our clients spend focused, thoughtful time preparing for any discussion where big issues had be to solved or negotiated. The amount of time required was interpreted in different ways by our clients, however. For example, one time a client called, and we had the following conversation:
Client: "I need your help preparing for my negotiation."
Me: "OK. When do you want to schedule that call?"
Client: "Oh, the negotiation starts in 10 minutes. I'm circling the block!"
Conversely, a woman walked up to me at a conference recently and said that she had approached me after a negotiation talk I had given a few years ago for advice on a job that she was considering. She thanked me for helping to clarify her decision and the approach she should take to negotiating her comp for this new position. A key part of the advice I'd given her was on taking the time to prepare effectively, considering all the relevant data, and thinking creatively about her options. It turns out the company she joined was Wildfire, which was acquired by Google for $350 million (plus earn-outs)! I said, "Sounds like that worked out well for you!" She beamed. "It changed everything," she said.
3. Increase creativity.
Sophie Lebrecht, brilliant founder and CEO of the company Neon (which organizes and optimizes the display of digital content leveraging neuroscience), points out that Jonah Lehrer's research on the topic of insight and aha! moments has shown that we are more likely to come up with and accept new concepts in unfamiliar settings.
Similarly, in her book Thrive, Arianna Huffington mentions a quote by Gregory Berns, author of Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently: "Only when the brain is confronted with stimuli that it has not encountered before does it start to reorganize perception. The surest way to provoke the imagination, then, is to seek out environments you have no experience with."
So, being fully present in a different environment--out of your office--can actually help you to be more creative in your work.
4. Notice new opportunities.
Lebrecht also notes that being present helps to avoid missed opportunities. There are often subtle hints that markets are going to move or change in particular ways, which can be learned by paying close attention to customers, partners, and investors. The information can be fragmented, indirect, and couched in orthogonal conversations, but if you are present and listening carefully, you can piece together clues to be ahead of the curve. If you are only half-present in meetings or on calls, checking your phone and thinking about your overflowing email inbox, you will either miss critical information or not fully digest the significance of something you only partially heard.
She says that when she started to hear about connected devices such as smart TV's and watches, she realized that images were going to become important, not just to relay visual content but also as a touch point for navigation and a fertile bed to develop image personalization. Nobody sat her down and told her this directly; she just pieced it together from a variety of related conversations.
There is a reason that the tag line on my work bio reads: "We invest in entrepreneurs who see a path to disrupting large markets that most of the rest of the world doesn't see." The entrepreneurs that I like to back pay close attention and are fully absorbed in leveraging as much relevant data as possible while pursuing innovation.
5. Appreciate the life-changing impact of taking time to just be.
"When did you last take any time to do nothing?" asks Puddicombe. We fill our hours with back-to-back frenetic activity, but sometimes the right answer is to just be for a bit, giving your brain a break.
One of my favorite quotes is by Ursula K. Le Guin, part of which is: "Very seldom do you come upon a space, a time like this, between act and act, when you may stop and simply be." Taking the time to simply be--in whatever form works best for you--is important for a number of reasons, some of which I outline below.
Maintaining perspective. When stuff hits the fan, maintaining perspective is critical, especially for entrepreneurs. As Puddicombe says, "We can't change everything that happens to us in life, but we can change the way we experience it."
Clarity of thought. Taking some time to clear your mind is also invaluable. Lebrecht notes that being in the moment and creating space for a clear and relaxed mind can help you to see beyond what people are saying to what is really going on. For example, she says, some of the Neon team were really apprehensive about moving into a relatively small office space and felt that it would be a waste of time to move the company twice in one year. She took a step back from the situation and realized that they might actually be concerned about two new large pilots that were to be worked on during the time of the move--not about the move itself. She was able to see beyond the stated problem in order to address the core issue that was really bothering her team. She made it a priority to maintain a temporary office space for them to work out of during the move, thus limiting their downtime.
Lebrecht says, "In startups, we need to be present and calm to be able to make decisions quickly with limited information. Being overwhelmed with the little things in life, you can become distracted, burnt out, and unable to make insightful decisions. Using time off the grid when you're not flooded with responsibilities allows you to approach critical challenges with a fresh perspective. A key chapter in Scaling Up Excellence, by Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao, called 'Lightening the Cognitive Load,' highlights the serious dangers and missed opportunities that result from constantly having too much on your mind."
Health and productivity. Our health, stamina, and ability to sustain the grueling work schedule that many of us deal with are, in fact, threatened if we don't take breaks or vacation time. Arianna Huffington notes in Thrive that having our minds constantly racing on worries or tasks makes the human fight-or-flight systems go into overdrive and never switch off, which can ultimately lead to a whole host of physical maladies, as well as reduced mental cognition capabilities, all of which translate to less productivity and creativity.
No regrets. Finally, something that is easy to forget in our harried lives is that never taking downtime increases the potential for regrets. Puddicombe says, "We are so distracted that we are no longer present in the world within which we live. We miss out on the things that are most important to us." This is also one of the key tenets behind Randi Zuckerberg's work via Zuckerberg Media: Technology should be leveraged to help us in our lives but should not take over our lives.
Connections with those we care about, new experiences, and adventure--all of the things that are the very essence of being human--can fall by the wayside if we don't take time away from our work to raise our heads, step out of the fire hose for just a bit, and clear our minds.
The days are short but life is long, and I truly believe--on the basis of more than 20 years of observation and experience in the world of venture and technology companies--that those who keep the long game in mind will win.