Getting Focused 03: Certainty and Survival

Getting Focused 03: Certainty and Survival

If you’ve been following along with part 1 and part 2, you’ll know that I’ve been frustrated with my lackadaisical progress on various personal projects. It’s ironic since I have all these productivity forms that are supposed to help. Even more ironic, over the past year I’ve really learned the value of an hour, which makes me even more sensitive about the time I fritter away sitting on the couch, immobile and uninspired. If only I was more focused, I find muttering, like, uh, Jesus, John Wayne, or Oprah…then maybe I’d be further along in my plans.

As I am a world class navel gazer, I attempted to figure out what the heck was wrong with me in my first post. Essentially, I had to face up to two humbling character traits: I’m easily bored and I have a high activation energy threshold, which means that I respond best to very interactive and dynamic problem-solving situations, otherwise I need a lot of convincing that I will receive a huge return on my time investment. Otherwise, my butt stays firmly in “Park”. In the second post, I realized that there was an additional issue: I have no idea what being “focused” actually felt like, or even how to do it. Sure, I could scrunch up my face like Hiro Nakamura and act like I was focused, but internally I didn’t have a clue what that really meant. I lacked a methodology.


OK, I have accepted that I’m an easily-distracted, lazy, and scatter-brained person by nature, so I can breathe easy and start rebuilding my focusing mechanism from scratch with these constraints in mind. My notion of focus is primarily based on observation: people who are focused seem to be drawn into their activity 100%, every quanta of energy and vector of motion channeled toward producing a purposeful result. The logical conclusion, taking my character traits into account, is this:

By eliminating unnecessary thoughts and external distractions, one’s ability to focus should be enhanced.

There are two ways to approach this:

  • One can remove those distractions from the environment, sure…
  • But the ideal way is to learn how to ignore the environment and act only on those tasks that need doing.

A lot of the tools I’ve designed to date have been based on removing distractions by focusing the attention on activity-anchoring pieces of paper. Learning to ignore distractions is an entirely new trick. This suggests a mental approach, perhaps something like meditation.

The only time I’ve tried meditating was in high school, when I was taking “Theory of Knowledge” from our genial-yet-mysterious professor Dr. Livingston Merchant. On his direction, the class settled down as each of us tried a meditation technique to quiet our minds. I became aware of the background sounds of the classroom, like the squeaks of chairs as people shifted their weight from buttock to buttock and the sound of the 20 year-old air conditioners straining in the subtropical heat. I became cognizant of the whirring pulse of the blood vessels in my ear, thumping out the long minutes of our session. Then someone (and it is possible that it was me) made some kind of whuffling sound with their nose and I just busted out laughing loud and uncontrollably. I fled the room, choking and gasping, followed closely by two or three other students who had also exploded with mirth, and we stood in the stairwell laughing uncontrollably for what must have been 10 minutes, gasping for air, not able to talk, just LAUGHING until we thought we would die from it. Then we went back into the room, sheepishly, and miraculously did not get in any kind of trouble. I have not attempted to meditate since that incident…until a few days ago.

I decided to “wing it”, and sat in the carpeted stairwell of my downstairs home office. I cleared my head any immediate deadlines and expectations, giving myself permission to just sit alone with my thoughts. They entered my head like a swarm of mellow bees, buzzing and swirling around in my head, and my mind touching lightly on each one for the briefest of moments. I thought about all the things I needed to do for the pre-printed Emergent Task Planner forms, which were awaiting my writeup of how they work and a mail-merge operation to inform everyone how much they cost and how to pay for them (we’re so close…I’m the bottleneck right now). I thought about the giant conversion process I needed to make for my blog, converting from WordPress to Expression Engine so I could do a lot more interesting things with my content (and what a pain in the butt that is going to be). I thought of the dozens of interesting people I had made contact with recently, and needed to contact again (I am feeling very behind and disorganized in maintaining these dozens of new relations). I thought of the big projects that were coming, of software I wanted to develop, and of new opportunities that are just within my grasp if I just took the time to write a series of articles or pull a book together. My mind held each thought warmly, and after a few minutes of this I felt I had reached a kind of peaceful mental equilibrium. So I asked myself a question, quietly:

what is the pattern I’m seeing?

To my great surprise, an answer came back immediately:


I was shocked. I examined all the thoughts again, holding each one against the “certainty” metric. I discovered that though each and every one of those great thoughts were valuable and full of potential, but the only thing I knew for sure what that they would not make me happy implicitly. And therefore, none of them seemed particularly worth doing; my “high activation energy threshold” problem was expressing itself yet again. And even worse: I had bummed myself out.

It’s important to make a distinction here: I am using “certainty” here in the emotional, not rational sense. I am fully aware that by following through on all these ideas I have will lead to greater opportunity and achievement. That’s very rational. However, I am not certain that these things will make me happy. I think they might, but having been in this position many times before (“if only I had a…”) I also know that this outcome is about as certain as betting on the weather.


The kind of certainty I’m talking about is the kind that anchors us individually, the kind that takes worries away from us. I also suspect that certainty plays a big role in the kind of focus I’m craving. There are two kinds of focus that come to mind:

  • Focus that Comes from Certainty — When you are certain that something is worthwhile, it’s a lot easier to do. Following through with that certainty is all that you need to focus; if you have any doubt at all, or lack faith, then your focus is doomed to waver and be tested. It occurs to me that this kind of certainty is a necessary component for following your bliss; in more mainstream terms, it’s that one thing that puts everything into perspective; everything falls into place after that. I think this is a kind of focus that comes from within.

  • Focus that Comes from Danger — The other kind of focus arises when your survival is at stake. It’s the boss breathing down your neck, or that big deadline, or the competitive thrill of crushing your opponents. It’s feeling that you’ve got skin in the game, that the lives of others are in your hands, or that you don’t want to let someone down. This is an entirely different mechanism, I think, from that which drives “focus from within”. What we’ve got here is something that’s fueled by adrenaline and competition.


p>If we were to take an inventory of other primal emotions, we could probably come up with a few more kinds of focus. The one that I am really craving, however, is certainty: a form of acceptance, and perhaps really a declaration of faith. The feeling of certainty underlies our feeling of home, security, love, commitment, and calling. This is the kind of certainty I’m looking for.


From the above, I am theorizing that my focus should come from certainty: if I can be certain about anything and really believe it, then focus should come a bit more naturally. There are many ways to game the system to extract “good reasons” for doing something (though I don’t find very motivating by themselves):

  • I can be certain about doing work because I know it is the right thing to do.
  • I can be certain that I want to do good work for someone, because this is one of my principles.
  • I can be certain that while I don’t know everything, I know that I can find my way through.
  • I can be certain that doing anything at all is worthwhile.

More powerful is making the commitment to myself, so that I am acting on my own behalf to become the kind of person I can believe in:

  • I am certain that creating anything at all makes the world a better place.
  • I am certain that putting myself as much as I can into the work I do helps the world connect with me.
  • I am certain that by continuing to push myself to improve, I am putting myself in the position of making the world a better place for the people who are important to me.
  • I am certain that I am the sum of my positive influences, not the sum of my failures
  • I am certain that I am my own metric for what works for me.
  • I am certain that I just have to pitch in where I can, and keep moving as I must.

I AM certain that these statements reflect what is important to me as a person and as a friend, and when I cast all my prior thoughts and activities in this context, By following through on these statements, I build the foundation of my own certainty. I think this is one of the missing connections I was looking for.

Generalizing the process, by itemizing what you are certain about is useful—presuming you can make that list in the first place—for establishing your own set of “is it worthwhile” criteria. In other words, if you are in that place where you’re not certain about any of your goals, connecting them to something you believe in can help forge that sense of purpose. You are then playing a role in fulfilling something greater than your To Do list. If you can’t do that, you probably just aren’t “that into it” in the first place. Mind you that I am talking about Focus that arises from Certainty, not from Survival.


Being certain about something doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get off your ass; I think it’s just the compass by which one can align the subconscious mind with conscious intention. Getting the ball rolling, as I discovered today, may require more extreme measures. Sometimes the brain isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, you know…but that’s a story for tomorrow.


  1. Melody 17 years ago

    Sometimes it’s not that people have focus, it’s that they have habits.

    Unfortunately, once we’re grown it usually takes focus to develop the habits.


  2. Sue 17 years ago

    For me it’s not just boredom and distraction getting in the way of moving toward my goals. I find ‘monkey mind’ my worst enemy. That critical inner voice that says ‘it all sucks’ and ‘why bother’. In order to combat it I create my to-do lists with the top items being the things I want to do least. Use timers to focus on the task at hand and try not to think to much about anything else. Some times it works.

  3. Britt 17 years ago

    The reverse of what you’re saying might help weed some things out. For the areas where you feel uncertain, perhaps that becomes the trigger for re-thinking your initial perception that sent you down the path. Maybe something has happened and triggered a safety valve in your subconscious.

    Maybe this is just more mumbo jumbo to confuse you further. :-)

  4. Rb 17 years ago

    For quite a while now I have observed the moments before deep meditation will reveal how well I am GTD.

  5. Dave Seah 17 years ago

    Melody: Good point. I’ve been trying to develop habits that I don’t have, so it’s a matter of also developing my own habit-building process. Essentially, I’ve been trying to figure out my own starting point because other suggestions haven’t worked for me.

    Sue: That’s an excellent point too. I’ve gotten past my “monkey mind” (awesome phrase, btw) and am at the point where I have to push past and just do. The unthinking part is something that I need to cultivate…I’ll be writing about that tomorrow.

    Britt: That’s a great suggestion. My initial reaction was that I was well beyond that point, having refined and weeded and sowed and planted and refined and replanted over and over again. I think I have a good set of seeds that will take, so now it’s a matter of getting on with it and taking those larger steps. You know, it might be all the COPING mechanisms that have arisen over the years, while I was doing all that seed selection, that are now making all the noise. It’s time to discard them.

    RB: That’s fabulous…thanks for sharing that!

  6. Dana 17 years ago

    I have this written at the top of my project board:

    Projects rarely get stuck because of lack of time. They get stuck because the doing of them has not been defined.

    As soon as I feel unfocused with a task, I ask myself:

    <li>Am I the best person to be doing this?</li>
    <li>Do I know where I’m going with it?</li>

    I find it really helps to kick my ass and get in gear with what needs to be done.

  7. rodmitch 17 years ago

    Yesterday’s serendipitous connection. First I saw the last picture in this post then I read your post re: certainty.

  8. Lynn O'Connor 17 years ago

    I rarely find myself disagreeing with you, but today I lost you, or you lost me, I didn’t agree, wanted to argue with you. I’m a scientist, I do research, I have hypotheses and try to test them. I get results, usually they support the thing I was trying to support but not always.  I confess that I never am sure, I am never certain about anything. If I waited to be “certain” I would never do anything. I am, like you, easily distracted, fidgety, prone to sitting in my chair day dreaming or sometimes ruminating. I am prone to “laziness” and days on end in which I don’t follow the plan laid out on my ETP. Sometimes I power through things, more often I don’t get much done. Well, maybe I get things done enough to stay in the running, sort of. But I am never certain. The more certain I think I am, the less interest I have in a project, a “next action.” Being uncertain motivates me. I get curious because I am uncertain. Why would I do a study if I felt certain? I love the part where I get to analyze data on my stats program. I feel like I’m in Tahoe, playing the slot machines, not knowing until bingo, I get an answer and a “p” value. That is very exciting, time flies without my noticing, no one can get my attention. The best for me is being in that “flow” state, and I think being uncertain is a necessary component.

    See, I think I missed the point somehow. I may have a different definition of “certain.” I usually understand you. What am I missing here?


  9. Dave Seah 17 years ago

    Dana: Thanks for sharing those focusing statements, very cool! For me, the answers are usually (1) “no, there’s probably someone better, but I’m on point” and (2) “I can divine what needs to happen”. I’m not really having trouble with defining tasks themselves—-this comes to me very easily—-but I tend to get bored by them or something.

    Rod: Heh, very cool link. Thanks!

    Lynn: I think the distinction may be the sentence where I made the distinction between “logical/rational certainty” and “emotional certainty”, which I didn’t expand on. Like you I like to see how things are connected and figure them out. There probably is a mainstream word that means “emotional certainty”. For example, in your description, you wrote with great certainty that you have a particular set of characteristics…it sounds like there is very little doubt there when it comes to knowing your own character and your own tendencies toward particular behavioral patterns. You know that once you get into something, your curiosity grabs hold and things take off for you. You don’t even have to question it. If you are comfortable with those patterns, and they bring you a sense of joy of doing, I would say that you have that “certainty” that I’m trying to define.

    I think the implication in our disconnect is that there are many ways of defining certainty. I think that a lack of certainty is at the root of some of my frustration with my own productivity; it may be that it’s entirely something else for you.

    It may be that my particular working situation lacks structure. I have to create it myself so I have SOMETHING to leverage. I would much rather live every day as a kind of vast opportunity to explore what strikes my fancy, which I do get to indulge to a certain degree. However, I also know that if I don’t build certain structures, maintain writing, create books, reach out to more people, etc…I will remain standing still and I will not have the opportunity to create my own existence. And perhaps it’s THAT opportunity that I want more than anything, on those terms. Hmm. Maybe that’s really it. I would say also that at the moment, I am very very tired of doing everything myself, and while the offer of help from generous people around the world is wonderful…I am at heart someone who likes to do things by himself. I think. I am actually not certain in this regard.

  10. mwhistle 17 years ago

    For what it’s worth, I think you may have answered your questions in the post just prior to this one.  You reference your mind-body-will conversations:

    “I also didn’t know that my mind and body could be so easily convinced to keep going; the body is designed for this, and exercising that conversation between my mind, my body, and my will has become something I look forward to every morning.”

    Any chance you’re read “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield?  It’s a short tome that deals with the internal battle of resistance especially as it relates to artists, entrepreneurs, self-directed types.  I’d put you in this category.  His message is that there’s no zen way out of the tangle and that you’re at war everyday with resistance.

    Very much like exercise, I’d say.

  11. Tuan Nguyen 17 years ago

    We always look for the best plan to follow, best methods, a clear path. Life itself is a twist in its own. Certainty is knowing a fact that was told by a seller saying your item has shipped, and you should be expecting the package in 3 days. Yet, there lies room for uncertainty where it can get lost, redirected to another route, for certainty is no more. Though, I like the ideas you have listed few of which I can see where you are coming from.

  12. J Wynia 17 years ago

    I’ve found binaural beat mp3’s to be really good “training wheels” for meditation. I can throw on the headphones, focus on my breathing and 20 minutes later, I’m refreshed and focused.

    I had meditation several times before (including going to a meditation center) only to fail miserably. Once I tried the training wheels, I was amazed at the difference.

  13. Matthew Cornell 17 years ago

    You really *really* should read “Following Through: a Revolutionary New Model For Finishing Whatever You Start” by Levenson. It addresses the things that get in our way (our brains, basically), and ways to work around them. You bring up some of them, but there are other important ones.

    (Side note on meditation: I attended a ten-day retreat at a Vipassana Meditation Center nearby, and it was … hard! I’d been to other “yuppy” places that involved an hour or two of meditation a day, hot tubs, massage, etc. But this one was 11 hours a day, complete silence, getting up at 4.30a, etc. Honestly, it was the only time I seriously considered grand theft auto. Really.)