Coming into Focus (Part III)

This is Part III of a three-part series on Focus.

“The real act of discovery is not in finding new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.“
~ Marcel Proust

Can you make yourself focus? There are times when it seems inevitable, such as when you have to make a presentation, or when time has run out for getting your taxes done. That “back against the wall” feeling brings on the adrenalin, which can help muster the focus necessary to put out the fire.

Is that the most effective way of focusing? It may seem like it, because it’s never failed you. But think about the pressure leading up to the last minute rescue. It drains your energy to know a deadline is coming up and that you’re behind on it. And usually after the gearing up of energy needed to pull a task off at the last minute, you’re very drained. Adrenalin rushes take their toll.

We often can manage to not get sick while we’re in the midst of a major crunch, but once the pressure is off, the body’s defenses come down and illness can grab you by the ankle and drag you into the swamp.

There is a distinction between making yourself focus and getting yourself to focus. Making yourself focus is almost a punishment – no wonder so much resistance comes up! Nobody likes to be forced into doing anything. Getting yourself to focus is an art, and how you approach this art can make a major shift in the quality of your life. It’s not unlike the distinction between managing a person and coaching a person – the level of motivation is going to be much higher if there is a feeling of choice.

Getting yourself to focus can involve both discipline and creativity. You’ll have the most success if you experiment with both and become reasonably adept at both. Discipline and creativity also cross-pollinate – creativity itself can become a discipline.

Key factors in increasing your level of discipline include:

  1. Knowing what the targeted completion date is and making a reasonable estimate of the time and resources need to successfully meet that date.
  2. Letting go of the notion “it takes as long as it takes” and adopting the view that you will do the best you can within the time you’ve allocated and with the resources available.
  3. Starting. Start anywhere. But start now.
  4. Take action on a regular basis. Let go of the idea “I’ll do it all this weekend (tonight, tomorrow) when I have 8 full hours to devote to it.

Using your creativity to get yourself to focus can have several dimensions:

  1. The regular action mentioned in #4 above will give your brain time to think about the task from many different perspectives – your creativity will have the opportunity to reflect your moods, who you spoke with recently, etc. When you make yourself focus, your creativity is limited to that one, intense sprint.
  2. If you’re stuck, try some different approaches and then put it down and go do something completely different for awhile. Again, your brain gets the chance to work on solving a problem without pressure. It is amazing how well this approach works. I’ve hit a brick wall on a project before, and gone to a movie and come back and solved the problem very quickly. It can take discipline to do this, as when we’re stuck, our natural approach can be to work at a problem until it’s solved.
  3. While the idea that creativity can be a discipline may sound paradoxical, when you get yourself to be creative on a regular basis, fresh ideas will come more easily. Discipline yourself to set aside some creative time each week – and it doesn’t have to be project related. It can be cooking, writing, building, playing a musical instrument, or building a website. The point is to get your brain asking on a regular basis, “what’s a different way to think here? What might be interesting, fun, different, or stimulating?” It’s the equivalent of that popular management slogan, “think out of the box.” My recommendation is, “get into another box altogether, and you’ll find that when you return to your old box, you’re able to see it in different ways.”

Apply creativity and discipline together, with the recommendation of discipline first. It’s easier to apply your creative juices to a structure (time, design, outline) than it is to a blank page. Work on your art of coming into focus by being able to move easily between discipline and creativity. If you hit a block with one, move to the other. You’ll find that brainstorming and writing an outline are not necessarily diametrically opposed, but merely a chicken and egg that need to meet.

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