The Importance Of Focus And The Difficulty Achieving It

Are you focused? Have you learned to say no to all the things that don’t lead you to your goal? Have you found a way to stay focused and productive with all there is to distract you?


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About a week ago I was listening to an episode of Shawn Blanc’s The Weekly Briefly where Shawn talked about focus. He started with a quote by Steve Jobs about how Apple focuses on products.

People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.

I find myself going through an unfocused time these last few weeks. It’s common when I finish a project that has demanded much of my time. It’s that feeling of “now what?” after the thing you were locked into no longer needs your attention.

Constraints help you focus, but they also set boundaries for exploration.

For all of spring and summer I was focused on writing a book. Now that my work on the book is done, I’ve been wrapping up a few projects for clients and myself that I had to push to the side for a time. It’s harder to stay focused as I bounce around from project to project and task to task.

Because I’m thinking about it and because writing often helps me organize my thoughts, I wanted to share some of the things I’m thinking about focus. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll continue by sharing the productivity system and tools I use and how they don’t always play nice with creative work.

Multitasking, Multipurposing, and Productive Flow

Multitasking is an illusion. People think they’re doing more because they’re interacting with more tasks across more projects. The truth is they’re just shifting focus back and forth, which leads to working less effectively and efficiently than if they’d focused on each one at a time.

The human brain has difficulty focusing on multiple things when each requires conscious attention. We can multitask when all but one task is automatic. We can walk and chew gum at the same time, because neither needs our conscious attention. We can have conversations while walking because only the conversation requires conscious thought.

However, try having a conversation with a person sitting next to you and one with a person you’re texting at the same time. One conversation will always suffer. You’ll miss part of it while listening or responding to the other.

Productivity requires focus. You want to get into a state of flow. This is especially true when doing something creative. Ideally you set the conditions for the muse to appear and help you get into a creative flow. It takes time to get to flow. If interrupted you have to go back to the start. The prep time to achieve a state of focused flow isn’t cumulative.

Flow isn’t limited to creativity. It’s a productive state, creative or otherwise. It’s a human condition more than anything. Focus is the reason for specialization. We’re more efficient doing the same thing over and over than we are switching among different tasks.

It’s why I prefer the idea of multipurposing. It allows you to focus on one thing so you can stay in flow, but still accomplish multiple things at once.

Focus is about saying no. It’s about setting constraints, the same way you set constraints when beginning a design. It’s reducing the endless number of things that might draw your attention so you can focus on the ones that truly matter.

The constraints act as a filter to keep out whatever will distract while letting in only those things that have your focus or will help you increase your focus.

Reduce to Focus

I work better when I focus on fewer things. It gives me a better chance of getting into a state of (unconscious or conscious) flow. Having too much to do at once pulls me in different directions and keeps me from a focused state.

When I have a lot to do I first clear away as many of the easy things as possible. I’ll make a list and as I do I take care of anything that can be completed in a few minutes. The goal is to make the eventual list more manageable.

I may do several passes at a long list to reduce items and simplify the list. The items left require a little more focus with every pass, but there are fewer items to focus on. The second pass might be to complete things that will take a half hour and maybe the third pass will commit an hour to each task.

I’m probably following some kind of 80/20 rule where I clear 80% of the tasks with 20% of the total effort or something like that.

With fewer items on the list, I might organize them into related themes or concepts and start categorizing tasks. Again it’s a method to reduce quantity in the name of focus. I can focus on one main subproject at a time with all of its tasks organized.

Starting with the items that will be quickest to deal with ultimately proves the most efficient way for me to get through any long to do list.

How to Decide When to Say No

You and I could work on the same project with different needs for where we should focus. You might be a developer and can add some functionality for the site in minutes, where I might need a few hours of stumbling and research to get it built. Perhaps my css skills are better and can fix many presentational issues quickly while you’d need the research and stumbling.

Some of the decision of what to say yes and no to come down to your particular skills. Even more it’s about your vision. Your vision for a project, your work as a whole, the entirety of your life or anything else you see as a goal.

On a specific project your concept, the goals of the site, and making unified decisions can all guide you and let you know what to say no to.

I wasn’t specifically thinking about focus last week when I wrote about positional and tactical chess, but asking yourself if something improves your position, can serve as a guide for where to focus.

If you’re creating a product you can ask if it fits with the company’s brand and strategy. When it comes to client projects you can decide which projects to take on. Ask yourself where do you want your brand to go? What do you want people to think and feel when they hear your name? Then stick to only working on things that move you in the direction you want to go.

I like to follow things that interest me and I trust the money will come if I do. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. Regardless my guide in what to focus on tends to be my interests, those things I feel passionate about.

I don’t really know that the money will come if I follow my passion, but I know me and I know the money won’t come at all if I don’t. I have a hard time focussing on things that don’t interest me despite my best efforts. My mind inevitably wanders to something that does interest me.

Again it’s up to you to decide what guides your life and your work. It’s up to you to choose projects and products, clients and customers. You have to decide, but once you do your guide should show you what to focus on and what to ignore.

Your guide might also be your interests. It might be a higher purpose you believe in. Maybe your guide is what brings the best monetary return. On a specific project your guide should come from the project itself. The main thing is once these goals, strategies, visions are set you want to follow them. Deviating means a loss of overall focus.

Creativity vs Productivity

Focus makes you more productive. Constraints help you focus, but they also set boundaries for exploration. Creativity prefers fewer boundaries. In a sense constraints serve as fence posts and fence lines to keep you inside.

Does focus reduce creative freedom in favor of productivity? Perhaps. However a constraint that keeps you from exploring a wider number of topics also helps you explore one topic in greater depth.

Focus directs your creativity. It’s an illusion to think you could explore everything anyway. You might have boundaries, but you’re free to explore anything within those boundaries.

By giving up the complete freedom of exploring everything, you make it reasonable to explore those things that likely matter most.

It’s a choice between going deep going or wide. Focus is putting in expert level hours to master something. Becoming an expert is about having long term focus. You can’t put in all those hours on one thing if you’re trying to put them all into many things. You have to say no.

Closing Thoughts

Like most things focus and a lack focus are points on a scale. So are creativity and productivity. You have to decide for yourself where to place your point on the scale. How much focus you need depends on what you’re doing, what you have to do, and what vision you have for your life and work.

It’s about balance. It’s finding the right balance for you and moving your focus to the point on the scale that balances you.

Over the next two weeks I’d like to continue this discussion. I’d like to talk about the Getting Things Done (GTD) productivity system and some of the problems associated with trying to fit creative work into any task management system. I also want to share the tools I use and how I and others tweak GTD for creative work.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

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