On FocusSat, Jul 5, 2014 in Life Hacking Leadership Best Of
Focus is perhaps the most important attribute in an organization. In fact, my dictionary defines an organization as “an organized body of people with a particular purpose…” A focused organization recognizes and cleaves to its purpose.
Likewise, the ability to create and sustain focus is perhaps the most valuable skill of the organization’s members, including both individual contributors and leaders.
What Is Focus, And Why Is It Hard?
My dictionary says focus is “an act of concentrating.” Consider the root words: concentrate literally means to bring to a common center, to be centered together.
More broadly, I think of focus as a resource similar to time, money, goodwill, and other more-or-less-fungible things. I claim that focus is usually an organization’s most valuable, most threatened, and scarcest resource.
I base this claim on my life experience. I have never worked at an organization that was too focused. I have never heard anyone describe an organization objectively as doing too few things too thoroughly, prioritizing excellence in execution too highly. Focus always seems to be under pressure; there always seems to be a gravitational pull away from focus, towards distraction.
Why is this? I believe it’s because ideas can be conceived in a flash, but execution takes time. In a moment of inspiration, I can envision a completed product or project. I can allow myself the thrill of dreaming about the benefits. How much better life would be with this-or-that! How much I would enjoy that! How much I’d like the satisfaction of having achieved this utopian ideal, this perfection!
The sobering reality is that achieving such a vision takes a long time and goes through many unexpected detours. Focus is hard precisely because inspiration is fleeting. We’re drawn into the tedious, neverending details of execution, yet the goal appears to remain as far away as ever. We long for the satisfaction of accomplishment, and it’s human to desire it now.
In the middle of this struggle, this discipline of delaying gratification, it’s so tempting to daydream of new ideas again. It’s rewarding because the indulgence of “wouldn’t it be wonderful” thoughts actually creates surges of pleasure responses such as endorphins. Distraction is an enticing, seductive drug.
Fear Is Anti-Focus
It can be demotivating to acknowledge the reality that achieving the dream is a marathon, not a sprint. This is actually a fear response. The thought I’ll never finish is a lie; the truth is I fear I’ll never finish. In fact, many of the reasons it can be hard to focus are just fear in different guises. New ideas are alluring in part due to the fear of what might happen if you don’t pursue them.
- If I don’t do this new thing I’ve just thought about, someone else will do it first.
- I might forget my new idea, or the reasons that I think it’s good.
- I might lose the opportunity to do it.
Fear is the voice of a pathological liar in your head. Fear says this is real when the truth is this isn’t real yet, but it could become real, and I wouldn’t like it if it did. You can see this by noting that fears are always about a potential future; if it’s reality already, you might suffer, but you won’t fear. And fears are not about the circumstance, but about your projected response to it. I wrote wouldn’t like above, but the truth is might not like. For example, the correct translation of I fear getting old is I fear that I might get old, and if I do, I might not like it.
Likewise, the appeal of a new idea is often partially infused with urgency, based on fear of what might happen if you don’t pursue the idea, and how you imagine you might feel about that outcome if it comes to pass.
Focus Is Worth Striving For
The benefit of focusing is simple: efficiency. The more concentrated your efforts, the more effective they’ll be. Your results will appear sooner, your work will flow more joyfully and easily, and your outcome will be better quality.
If you examine some of the effects of distraction, the benefits of focus should become clear. I won’t belabor this point, but I’ll note that every new activity or idea has a compound effect. We tend to be biased to see the potential benefits much more than the likely drawbacks, which is part of why new ideas are so alluring. We see, for example, that a new product feature will enrich and enable and empower. But do we see that to do it right, we’re obligated to integrate it smoothly with all existing and future product features, to maintain it, to test it, to train, to document, to support? Usually not. We usually see compound benefits, but neglect to see compounded costs and risks, especially those that come from failure to execute fully and excellently.
Focus is putting what’s most important first and protecting its right to be there. (typically by saying “No” to everything else) — Vanessa Hurst
Many people I admire achieve amazing things precisely because they complete one thing and then build something new on top of it, rather than always having everything in a glorious state of perfect incompletion. The “secret” to their success is the willpower to patiently bring things to completion.
In fact, I often think about focus in terms of WIP (work-in-progress), a term you’ll hear in Lean, Agile, Kanban, and other circles. Focus and WIP are inversely related. Focus is the ability to say “not yet,” to finish work in progress before starting new things.
The danger of not doing this — the danger of saying yes to opportunity — is that you’ll load so much gold into the boat that you sink the whole thing. I find it helpful to consider each new opportunity or idea from this perspective.
Can you have too much focus? Certainly, but it’s not focus. It’s perfectionism, which is another type of fear. In my experience, individuals can be perfectionists, but organizations — I’ve never seen that. And even perfectionist individuals suffer from a perverse lack of focus, because they focus on the perfection of the thing they want to achieve, rather than the benefits they want to achieve. Focusing on the benefits you want is an antidote to perfectionism. I write from deep personal experience on this topic.
I also want to point out that the type of execution-to-completion I’m discussing is emphatically not anti-Agile. Shipping early and often is part of getting something to completion as soon as possible, achieving the best final product, and lowering waste. Completion and excellence in execution are often conflated with perfectionism and reluctance to release partial work. They’re not the same, and treating them as synonymous is a huge mistake.
The Politics Of Focus
If you’re a manager, it can be difficult to help your team stay focused, because you need to coach them through their natural impatience and discouragement without demotivating them. This is no easy thing, but nobody said management is easy.
Although it’s true that focus starts with saying no, say it carefully. Someone who has a good idea that is struck down can easily take it personally, especially if the idea was rejected ingraciously. It helps to put the emphasis on the idea and not the person. It also helps to take the emphasis away from the idea and draw it back towards the work in progress, and the outcome you’re working for — to redirect the conversation into a “yes” for something else, instead of saying “no” to the idea itself.
Another suggestion is to avoid saying “no” and to say “yes, later” instead. This is itself a way of focusing.
Reminding people of the progress they’re making can also be helpful. While you’re in the weeds executing on a vision, progress becomes difficult to see. If you can help people remember what things were like a month ago, they might be reminded of how much progress they’re making.
Another helpful reminder is that the distracting idea or opportunity isn’t a good thing yet. It’s only the vision of the possibility of a good thing. This can segue nicely into rekindling passion for what’s currently underway:
Remember all the superior effort you’ve put into what you’ve done thus far, but which isn’t yet producing any benefit? Wouldn’t it be nice to see that through? Can you remember the original vision for that project, and how excited we were about making that a reality?
Be patient with people who have ideas you don’t want to pursue right away. Let them work through the ideas with you, help them come to terms with any fears (conscious or not), and use their passion and enthusiasm as a springboard for redirecting energy into the current project. Nothing kills the esprit de corps quite as fast as a naysayer who just shuts things down.
Many ideas and opportunities are worth considering seriously, and some are worth pursuing. Through experience I’ve stumbled onto a model that has worked for me thus far. It’s based on two questions that require considerable thought and care:
- Are the current efforts and work-in-progress producing good outcomes?
- If we do more of the same (i.e. execute to the vision), will we magnify our existing success?
If the answers are yes, then it might not be best to engage in new ideas or opportunities, no matter how good they are. Beware of loading your plate with more than you need to eat. Ask yourself two additional questions:
- Are boredom and missed opportunities the only risks of staying the course we’ve set?
- Are novelty and expanded opportunity the main benefits of beginning something new?
Focused organizations are made of focused people. It’s that simple. If your people can’t focus, then the organization will be less focused. If they can, then the organization can be single-minded.
Speaking personally, my patience and ability to continue working on things that are in progress, and my reluctance to admit distraction, is not something I was born with. Remaining serene and keeping an eye on the goal is a skill that I believe anyone can nurture and grow.
For me, it’s now part of my underlying worldview. I believe, and my experience has been, that whatever I focus on, whatever I give my attention to, will gradually become my reality. I believe that mindfulness — the ability to observe choose my thoughts, and by proxy to direct my thoughts intentionally — is the source of my ability to direct my life.
When I was a child, I attended a workshop with Pat Parelli, a master horseman and trainer of people. His phrase has stayed with me through many years:
Causing is somewhere between making and letting.
When I notice and release distracting thoughts, what is it but focus? When I choose my thoughts with care and intention, what is this other than focus? And every time I do this, I cause myself to contribute to my desired goals, by training myself to become better at giving attention to things I want, and withdrawing attention from things I don’t want.
My advice, should you wish to hear it, is to consider that mental effort defeats itself. You can’t force yourself to focus. The harder you try, the more you’ll spin your wheels. It must be effortless and relaxed.
One way to avoid effort is to become interested in what you want. The ability to create genuine interest within yourself is a skill. You can do it if you can direct your thoughts to the things you want. And training yourself to be able to direct your thoughts is not only possible, it’s the single most valuable skill you could ever acquire, because it will multiply your efforts in every other area.
Rather than fighting or working for focus, I suggest that you become a focused person through a daily practice of your choosing.
Everyone’s practice will be different. The key is to find something that works for you, and is so rewarding that you find it indispensable — something you “couldn’t live without.” If you don’t know where to start, ask advice from people you admire. If you want what they have gotten, consider doing what they have done. Look at anyone else in your life and assess them the same way.
I’ll give a couple of examples. One is mindfulness and meditation. For an example, see Brad Feld’s blog. He has written a great deal about the benefits he’s seen since beginning to practice meditation. His personal practice is based on the Headspace Project, which I can also say has worked well for me.
The second example is Martin Luther (not Martin Luther King Jr), who is quoted as saying “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” Beginning each day with intentionality gets things off on the right foot. I’m not sure that three hours is necessary for everyone. Three minutes works wonders for me.
Third is physical activity. Many people find specific things conducive to focus: running, knitting, swimming, showering. If you can get some focus and quietude of mind doing something like that, then try to integrate it into the rest of your time as well. For me, it used to be rock climbing. That was the only time I felt focused.
Now I use both prayer and meditation to achieve mindfulness every day and carry it through all my activities. Years ago I met an elderly man, an architect, who spoke of his lifelong practice of transcendental meditation and how beneficial it had been. I asked him to be my teacher, and he spent a lot of time coaching me in meditation.
Ultimately I found I could not sustain the practice he passed on to me. Perhaps it was that I didn’t learn it well enough, or perhaps it just wasn’t quite right for me. Whatever the reason, it was something I could live without, and because it was non-essential I gradually drifted out of the habit of doing it every day. After some time I found two small tweaks that made it much easier for me, and that made all the difference. (The tweaks were meditating for a slightly shorter time, and focusing on my breath instead of a mantra. Your mileage will vary.)
I find the following pieces of scripture immensely inspiring:
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. — Matthew 6:21-22
What does it mean for one’s eye to be single? My interpretation is that it means to cast your attention on only one thing. The overall meaning I find in these verses is that choosing a goal, choosing to regard your goal as a treasure you desire, and concentrating on it, will motivate you towards creating that outcome.
Finally, this is the essence of focus for me:
Be still, and know that I am God. — Psalm 46:10
I wish you success in all your endeavours, and hope you’ve found this article helpful.
I'm Baron Schwartz, the founder and CEO of VividCortex. I am the author of High Performance MySQL and lots of open-source software for performance analysis, monitoring, and system administration. I contribute to various database communities such as Oracle, PostgreSQL, Redis and MongoDB. More about me.