Focusing on focus, at the personal level

posted: March 9, 2019

tl;dr: My best output happens when I am focused...

Focus. Five letters, two syllables, one word. When I’m asked what I quality above all others is most important to personal or business success, that’s the answer I give.

Focus starts with choosing a task, direction, path, destination, end result, and/or goal to be achieved. Being focused means concentrating as much time, energy, and effort as possible on executing to achieve the desired outcome. A key aspect of being focused is avoiding everything else that does not contribute to achieving the chosen result. Other activities will either be a waste of time or, worse, prevent the desired outcome from happening.

At the individual level, the state of being focused applies across multiple timespans, from the instantaneous to multiyear or even decades-long periods of ones life. In the here and now, focus is mostly a matter of concentrating and proactively avoiding distractions and interruptions. It’s why, as I type this blog post on an airplane, I’ve got my noise cancellation headphones on, I’ve not purchased the inflight Wi-Fi, I’m not talking to the person next to me, and I’m not staring out the window, although it appears to be a gorgeous, sunny flight over the Rocky Mountains.

Focus or die can be the two choices on some ski runs (Aspen/Snowmass back country)

Although others claim to be different, especially in this broadband wireless Internet era with smartphones and social media apps, I need to avoid outside distractions to achieve my most focused state. It’s why I disable almost all notifications on my phone, and why I will often turn the sound off. It’s a challenge to avoid emails and Slack channels: I try to check these in between tasks. Most of the time it’s quiet enough in the office to let me work at my desk, but sometimes I’ll jump into an empty small conference room. If I really need to concentrate on one task for a long time, and avoid all interruptions and people, I may go to a quiet library where nobody who knows me is likely to see me.

That last trick is, of course, a holdover from my college days. Cornell has more than a few libraries, and one in particular, the Uris Library, has a modernistic underground reading room. The cushy chairs, warm lighting and unobstructed view of the western hills and sunset attracted less-serious students who were more interested in seeing and being seen. Hence it was known as the Uris cocktail lounge.

A much better place to study was deep in the stacks of Uris, where there were a scattering of isolated work desks, and you might see one other person an hour wander by. Another trick was to work in an empty classroom at night; unlike the libraries, which closed at midnight, most buildings and classrooms were unlocked and accessible at all times, except when there was a class being held. You couldn’t help but focus if you were in an otherwise empty classroom with nothing but your books and notes (laptops hadn’t been invented yet).

Achieving a state of focus is also known as being “in the zone”, and it is the best state in which to produce output requiring deep thinking. Athletes also speak of being “in the zone”, as most sports reward those competitors who are best able to achieve focus. One of the reasons I enjoy downhill skiing is that it requires total focus in order to successfully ski down a steep slope, fast and yet under control, without hurting or killing oneself. When I am skiing a non-trivial ski run, my mind is completely clear of everything except the slope in front of me and the conditions around me. All other concerns melt away: it’s a wonderful feeling.

Focus is also important on longer-term time scales. Staying focused on a longer-term goal such as earning a degree, building a career, or raising a family can help avoid wrong choices. It can help with saying “no” to requests and opportunities that do not contribute to achieving the desired goal. The state of being “in the zone” can last for hours at a time, not years at a time, but being focused can definitely help achieve long-term goals.

See also: my thoughts on the importance of focus for a company.