Hocus Focus

Hocus Focus

The past couple of weeks have been, for me, very un-GTD. Instead, I seem to be in a “Things are Getting Done, Somehow” mode; stuff happens, but not in any particularly directed manner. To top that off, I haven’t been doing my PCEO forms, nor have I been doing Menu of the Day. Yet, I’m feeling weirdly productive. I think it’s because I’ve been talking to a lot of people and have been slowly booking up a backlog of projects, so now, it’s time to get busy!

It’s focus that eludes me at the moment.

Here’s my problem: I’ve got more than a few projects I’m working on simultaneously, each requiring different parts of my brain:

  • A pure eye-smacking visual design project
  • A Flash XML protocol definition and back end interface
  • A corporate web rearchitecting and reskin
  • Creating a video game class library for a learning environment.
  • Conceiving and writing my first article for an online magazine

Then there’s the usual:

  • Continued Printable CEO forms development
  • Ongoing social network expansion
  • New Media Group
  • Conference Calls & Meetings
  • This blog
  • Business stuff like accounting, creating marketing strategies and collateral, etc.
  • Keeping a clean house

I’m not used to dealing with this many projects at once, but I figure it’s good to pile on the pressure to see what happens.

I immediately have noticed that my “action path” is quite random. Instead of focusing on one task and seeing it through to completion, the environment itself is distracting me. For example, I’ll need to write a check, so I pull up a bill and start filling it out. In the process of finding the bill, I have to find an address, so I look at my mail program, get distracted by another email I have to answer, which triggers a need to dig info up on Google, and then I have to go upstairs and I forget that I was paying the bill, because in the process of grabbing a stack of mail from upstairs I end up reading something that distracts me further from my path. Then I see a pair of socks on the floor and start collecting laundry.

And that’s a good reason not to work at home :-) It’s filled with distractions! However, working at home is a lot cheaper than renting space, so I need to find another way to maintain focus.

Elements of Focus

I think we tend to think of Focus as a kind of mind trick: you’re either focused, or you’re not. You tell your brain “OK, FOCUS” and the well-trained mind tunes out all distractions.

If your brain doesn’t work that way, then focus can be gained through use of external motivators. For example, a project manager can remind you of what you need to deliver by what time. Your state of mind is regulated by a third party that acts as a sort of pacemaker for keeping your brain in a regular rhythm. Setting a deadline and promising it to someone is another way of putting some external regulation on your focus mechanism. In game design, keeping the goal clear and concrete is essential! “Ship By This Date or Die” can work wonders :-)

I also have a theory about how your eyes play a role in the focus game. This thought popped up just a few days ago:

  • I was talking to a friend about really listening to people. Eye contact is important in making the other person feel that they’re in a conversation, and I mentioned that I sometimes am not sure exactly where to look. If I focus on the left eyeball of the other person too long, I wonder if it’s too intense or maybe impolite. So I move my gaze around a bit. My friend found this fascinating because she’s a martial artist, and part of her training is to know exactly where to put your eyes. She thought it was cool that a non-martial artist like me was thinking of these things. In each case, the eyes are essential parts of the activity.

  • You know how the physical act of smiling cheers you up, even if you’re feeling bad? By forcing yourself to configure your face into a smile, something happens that makes you feel better. It’s fascinating that the body can induce good feeling to chair-bound nerds as myself; I suspect that people who exercise regularly totally know what I’m talking about.

So combining these two insights together, here’s what I’m thinking:

If I deliberately control what I’m looking at during the course of the day, will focus follow? In other words, visual focus lead to mental focus, much in the way that smiling leads to feeling good.
It seems plausible, though I have nothing backing me up. Most of the time my eyes are looking at everything and taking it in. It’s natural then that I get distracted; since I’m not controlling what I’m looking at, I’m allowing distracting impulses to enter my brain, which has to fight off the impulse. And the best way to not get into a fight is not to be there in the first place, you know?

Other Contributors to Focus

Above we’ve talked about The Mind, and the Mind Following the Body. There are other helpful tricks that we can think up too. Consider the Body itself:
  • The string around your finger is a good mnemonic to remind you to stay on task. It engages our senses (our built-in interrupt system), and he physical proximity of the string provides low-level and continual reinforcement of what you need to do. The reason it works is that it’s pretty much always in view. It catches your eye if you’ve chosen your string well, and even the sensation of having a string on your finger may remind you that you should be focusing.

  • Diet affects my mental clarity, I find. Complex carbohydrates (breads, sugars) induce an insulin rush that makes me feel sleepy and unfocused; I have learned to cut out sugar and other carbs almost entirely if I need to be focused and alert. If you are one of those people who feel like napping after lunch, then you’re probably in the same boat. Hard to focus when you’re feeling sleepy.

  • Also overlooked is proper hydration. You’re supposed to drink 64oz of water (not soda) a day. When I’ve remembered to do this, I’ve felt great. This contributes a great deal to mental clarity, but not in an obvious cause-and-effect way. Give it a try and see if you don’t feel better after a day.

  • Adequate and regular sleep cycle? Can’t focus if you’re tired.

  • Regular exercise gets the blood flowing. And sometimes just going outside and going for a 15 minute walk induces a marvelous sense of clarity and focus, as you ponder what it is you need to be doing.

Consider also environmental approaches:

  • Paper-based approaches work partly because they’re less distracting. Computers morph between productivity tool and entertaining distraction in the blink of an incoming email. Paper doesn’t morph like that, which is why I like it. Plus you aren’t limited to displaying your task list on the computer screen, but can move to another area where you can think.

  • Feedback-based Procedures help focus, because it narrows down the list of things you really have to be aware of to move forward, and you don’t have to think. It never occured to me that the type of projects that I tend to do themselves are not particularly proceduralized in this way. By creating some procedure for doing this kind of creative work, I may be able to improve my productivity by simplifying the complexity of my mental work. An interesting idea!

  • When you don’t have a separate office away from home, a work shrine might provide a sense of respite away from distraction where you can see the big picture again. I haven’t been able to maintain this as well as I like.


p>My tentative conclusion is that Focus can be trained. I could even develop a focus-enhancing regimen that increases my productivity. Will have to think how that can be packaged for deployment in any given situation.

Which reminds me:

  • Distraction storage is essential if project ideas keep popping up. My Pickle Jar is good for that, as is this blog. I don’t have time to think about this stuff now, so into idea cold storage it goes.

Ok, that’s enough for now. I really should be working :-)

» Read Part II of Hocus Focus


  1. Joan 18 years ago

    Kitty Carlisle Hart (who was on TV quiz shows when they were live) taught me that if you put the tip of your toungue behind your front teeth, you will always sort of smile and look interested. This is an excersize in “training” a smile. And if a smile makes you feel good, or keeps you from looking stupid in front of a bunch of people then this is a good thing.
    I guess one of the ways I make nervous people less nervous is to teach them this technique.

  2. Ed Eubanks 18 years ago

    Good post, David.  Interesting (and helpful) thoughts on focus.

    FYI—when you want to convey that you are listening, eye contact IS a must.  You should know that 80% of all people are right-eye dominant; just as nearly everyone has a dominant hand, so too with eyes.  Look into the dominant eye all the time and you’ll be safe.

    (And, by experience I can tell you that you will be able to tell if someone isn’t right-eye dominant when you look at their right eye and they don’t seem to recognize your eye contact.)

  3. Mike Brown 18 years ago

    UK Coach Mark Forster (http://markforster.net/index.php?view=15) has a neat focusing question for himself, which is: “what am I resisting right now?” You very quickly receive an answer, and THAT’s what you move to next. If you tune yourself to listen to your intuition like that, you find your day’s work pulling you towards it, rather than pushing yourself to the work.