Hocus Focus, Part II

Hocus Focus, Part II

I recently wrote that I seem to have a lot going on, and remembered that I had written about this before in my post Hocus Focus. At the time it seemed like a pretty insightful post, but looking back on it I’m seeing that it really seemed to deal with symptoms instead of causes.

My ability to focus comes in two sizes: SUPER ULTRA MEGA SIZE and TRIAL SIZE. When I’m on the hunt to discover some fact or root cause I focus very well, to the exclusion of all other stimuli. When I’m not on the hunt, I tend have to result to trickery like the Emergent Task Timer to keep my head in the game. One reason that I seem to keep making more Printable CEO™ forms is because I keep looking for new ways of keeping my mind engaged on the task I’m “supposed” to be doing; it occurs to me that while most people work now to retire later, I’d rather work so I don’t have to focus anymore in my old age, and can pursue my whims wherever they might take me. But I digress…I just had an epiphany about focus that is ludicriously simple:

Focus is Concentrating on One Thought at a Time

I got the idea from a friend of mine, who is writing a paper on the subject of Intuition and Sequential Thinking. One of the things she points out is that our minds seem to have many thoughts running in parallel, but in general only one of them is in the forefront of our conscious minds. My older post on focus was really about the external distractions; this post is about the realization that holding a single thread of thought and action is the internal discipline that I need to develop.

Before, I thought focus was all about character, perserverance, and true grit, and I apparently didn’t have any of the right stuff to pass muster. However, maybe it is just about being a good single-tasker; we already know that multitasking itself isn’t necessarily productive (skip to the section: But Isn’t that Multitasking?). Learning to single-task—FOCUS—naturally follows.

I like it when I can identify two push-pull forces working together:

  • Eliminate external distractions within your immediate vicinity, so you don’t get off on a tangential task

  • Learn to maintain focus on a single thought or task at a time.


p>Could it be this simple?


  1. Pavel 18 years ago

    This reminds me of Pavlina’s Persistence ” article. I’ve found the series “Self-Discipline” quite useful.


  2. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Pavel: Thanks for the link! I checked out the article series, a lot of good surrounding material there around self-discipline in general. I find his approach to be helpfully and broadly descriptive; I think I’m a little more neurotic about it :-)

  3. Jason 18 years ago

    This also reminds me of Brian’s article, The Unstoppable Power of Focus article.  Worth a read as well.


  4. Mike Brown 18 years ago

    And another similar article, but from the programmer’s perspective:

    Human Task Switches Considered Harmful

    I also like to read this one on a regular basis:
    Painless Software Schedules

    He has written lots of good stuff, and interesting even though I’m not a programmer. Here’s his complete archive:

  5. Matthew Cornell 18 years ago

    Thanks for the nice post. Your summary made me think of it this way: There are two forces, push and pull. Push is eliminating distractions, and using personal effort to focus. Pull is keeping in mind why I’m doing something, which should generate some motivation.

  6. Claire Tompkins 18 years ago

    “One of the things she points out is that our minds seem to have many thoughts running in parallel, but in general only one of them is in the forefront of our conscious minds.”

    This is the real reason that talking on the phone while driving is not a great idea.  It’s not about whether you’re juggling a physical phone and a driving wheel, it’s that you’re doing two different mental tasks. So using a headset doesn’t help at all.

    Face it, if you’re thoughtfully answering a client’s question on the phone, you are simply not paying as much attention to the road. Of course, the same goes for talking to your passengers or listening to a controversial radio show.

    We serial task all the time. It’s not a terrible thing to do, but it’s important to be honest with yourself that your attention is split and that you’ll have to draw it back to the main task again and again.

  7. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Jason: Thanks for that article link! I’ll check it out!

    Mike: I’m a big fan of Joel on Software; I’ve referenced those articles myself in the past. Have you gotten the Best of Software Writing collection? Not his words, but collected from around the Internet…all of them just as phenomenal.

    Matt: That’s a great way of putting it! Thanks!

    Claire: Great example! The especially mysterious thing is that apparently our subconscious thoughts are indeed capable of processing when our attention isn’t on them! It’s kind of astonishing; in the example you use, it’s amazing that we can actually drive at all while talking on the phone. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could safely harness those automatic processes? I think of procrastination as “dark matter” in the universe…think if even a fraction of it could be converted into energy! But I digress :-)