Getting Focused 02

Getting Focused 02

A few days ago I was feeling grouchy about not being that productive, and wrote about two personal quirks that may have something to do with it:

  • I have a high activation threshold for starting tasks. That is, it takes quite a lot of energy to actually get my butt moving. I seem to have the expectation that anything I do must meet a minimum level of return approaching 2x. I think of this as the two-fer (as in “two fer one”); if I can think of two or more things that will happen as the result of my action, I’m more likely to do it. The other form of activation energy comes from people; if I’m working with a good partner or working to a deadline for someone else, that gives me the energy to continuously create.

  • I am very impatient when it comes to waiting for results. I like to see results right away. If I can’t see results, I want to at least see something happening that is immediately useful to me. For many drawn out technical projects, I need to ensure that I have the necessary incoming people energy to stay motivated. I need to see things happening, or I lose interest.


p>So here’s the theory: for me to get focused, I need to take those two traits—high activation threshold and impatience—into account. To deal with my high activation threshold, I need to have people to work with and choose interesting projects with multiple applications.

Unfortunately, the work I have to do right now (which includes such exciting things like paying bills and cleaning my bedroom) have no such payoff implicit in them. There are ways around this, of course. I could make a game out of it. I could promise someone I’ll do them. Or I could actually figure out what focus is and do that.

How does one focus, anyway?

It occurs to me that while I understand the concept of focus, I have never really practiced it like I knew what I was doing. If I were a movie director, I’d know how I’d depict focus: steely eyes, intense yet detached, coolly fixated on the task at hand with dramatic tick-tock musical undertones. However, drama is no replacement for the real thing.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on how my ability to do certain things has been shaped by subconscious observation and passive experience. For example, I never learned directly how to socialize in large groups when I was a kid, and was intensely shy. For a long time I thought this was because I was just introverted by nature, but as I’ve learned to put together my own socializing methodology a competing theory has come to mind: I just never saw anyone I know do it in a language I understood. In other words, I never had a clear mental picture of what great socializing was. Likewise, I don’t think I have a role model for focused action.

So I really have no idea how people are focused, though I understand plenty of theory about what it is. There’s a big difference between the “being” and the “what” of something. Being, in my mind, is the integration of the principle into living action. The “what” is merely identification and categorization: essentially, it is labeling. Labeling by itself isn’t very useful. I remember seeing a CEO-type person lead a meeting once to figure out how to raise revenue targets. His solution was quite logical: revenue comes from sales. Therefore, we need more sales. Ergo, we need to hire more sales people. Problem solved…except it wasn’t. This act of executive leadership identified a “what” without the underlying methodology that would create the what in a meaningful way. If you don’t understand sales from the one-to-one perspective and integrate that with accounting practices, you are pretty much just leading your people bravely into nests of machine guns.

There are plenty of people who will tell me what to do to be focused, and that’s all well and good. But I need to discover what it means to “be” focused in addition to having the mechanics. I shall reflect upon that today.


  1. Mark 14 years ago

    That movie director idea is really interesting. I wonder if there’s a lifehack right there: the use of role play or idealization. E.g. “If I were in a movie, and I were supposed to be focused on [insert project], how would I act?”

    While it probably won’t make for immediate, dramatic change in your habits, at least it could help you overcome the inertia. Sometimes all you need is a little silly momentum.


  2. Dave Seah 14 years ago

    Mark: I have a notion called “storytelling by design”, which is just recognizing that to effect any kind of change, it helps if everything around the change (people’s attitudes, environment, etc) is aligned with the goal. This combines elements of theater, psychology, game design, and coaching. A TV example would be the cast and operation of a team like on Mission Impossible. Another close analogue might be experience design, but I find the field somewhat dry, and prefer the more dramatic approach.

  3. Katrina 14 years ago

    Interesting … I am an introvert too.  But I do know how to socialize.  I step into a persona.  It is like acting, but the person I become is all me.  I step into the part of me that is charismatic, funny and warm.  It is the me that is social.

    I wonder if it is the same with focus.  My main entry point to focus is excitement.

    I get excited by solving a problem, learning a new way to solve a problem or creating something totally new.

    It is hard to get excited about stuff that I cannot figure out, that I do not posses skills required to figure it out or seems boring and routine.

    So how do I get focused when I am not excited?  Well one way is like you, when I make a commitment to someone else?

    The other way is the one I am trying to wean myself from—urgency.  I wait till the last minute and now it is exciting because it is urgent.

    I too need another way to approach the issue of focus, esp when there is no excitement.

  4. Dave Seah 14 years ago

    Katrina: When did you figure out how to step into a persona? For me, the persona was that of being the host, or having a host mentality. Then, I had a role to fulfill in the grand scheme. Sort of like being the mayor. I also learned that by projecting those qualities I most valued—-positivity and an inclusive sense of empowerment—-that things came much more easily. I thought of this as amplification of what I already had and wanted…but perhaps this is the essence of true acting.

    I’m trying to think of another entry to “focus”, and it may actually be just enjoying the solitude of getting the work done. The sound of a train over railroad tracks, the hum and clatter of a mechanical loom, the whirring of printing presses…these are images that come to mind.

  5. John Ballantrae 14 years ago

    I found your post very interesting, and I want to reply, though I can’t quite put my finger on what I want to say. Here, in any case, are two points.
    One is that “focus” comes from a Latin word that means “hearth” or “fireplace”. Maybe you never saw a role model for focussed action because it’s supposed to be one’s own hearth, rather than outside and exemplified by others. Where is your fire; what sort of fire is it?
    You say: Being… is the integration of the principle into living action – and that’s fabulous, and totally correct, I think.
    It’s Hamlet, and his dilemma is ours too. To be, or not to be; etc. There’s probably no reason why anyone should do anything, ever. Yet there is a fire within us. If the nature and the quality of your fire, your hearth, is discovered or known, then you have identity and there is no existential dilemma.

  6. Dave Seah 14 years ago

    John: Those are two fabulous and beautifully-expressed insights… thank you! I had an insight that might be related, which was that of meaning. I quieted my mind best I could and listened to the chatter that remained, and found this kind of empty silence underneath everything telling me what to do. It made me want to go watch “City Slickers” to see if it struck me differently (I hadn’t bought the ending of it).

  7. Eric Armstrong 14 years ago

    Your recurrent theme in the blog about not knowing how to socialize reminds me of myself and, I can’t help myself from saying it, my son, who has Asperger’s Syndrome. Like so many great minds who do tech related design, is it possible that you have Asperger’s? Have you ever considered it?
    For more on AS, check out

    I personally don’t have AS, but AS and Autism (which my other son has) are “spectrum disorders” which means there is a huge range of symptoms, and they can range from mild to severe. My wife and I both recognize that we have elements of AS in our own lives, and that the double whammy of our genetic makeup probably help our kids genes on their way to full-blown Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnoses. Our parents and extended family also share some of these traits.

    Anyway, it might be something you’d be interested in exploring, if you haven’t already. Lots of famous people are mythologized as having AS or having had it, people like Bill Gates, and Mozart.

    Love your writing, and more importantly, I love the way you choose to share yourself so openly with the world through your writing. Thanks,


  8. Ashe 13 years ago

    I love your insight about never having had “a role model for focused action.”  I think it’s why I did my best work in college while sitting in a room with uninterrupted sight of dozens of other people working.  Even a coffee shop where a majority of the customers were engrossed in their reading always turned out to be a better venue than some quiet corner tucked away in a library.