Our managerial training and praxis has been quite successful at making us guilty of not focusing enough on a task or topic. Focus, focus, focus, has been the mantra of multiple managerial recipes, entire manuals of strategy, and overpaid coaching sessions.
Who could deny its logic? Well, some wild people who think we may have too much logic, too early. ‘Tell them to focus on one thing, the one, the one that will make a difference’, the Management Oracle advises. ‘Prioritize the top 3. Give me the one thing. Focus, for goodness sake!’
Out of guilt of not focusing, and out of the external demand to focus, one thing surely happens: we focus. Which may mean missing a hell of a lot of things by surrendering too soon to the magnetic, in front of me, thing I can do and ‘focus on’.
The problem is not that we need to focus – let’s agree to agree – but that we don’t prepare ourselves for ‘it’, and then we uncritically hook with whatever moves in front of us.
Leonard Mlodinow’ book ‘Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Constantly Changing World’ is a shot of fresh air. A serious theoretical physicist, enters the cognitive territory and the airport bookshelves. Amongst other things, he encourages us (my paraphrasing) to look at our states of mind ‘before the focus’. Steven Poole’s review in The Guardian says it nicely:
It turns out that we might approach problems more creatively if our executive, conscious brain is exhausted from having focused on lots of boring choices: so a few hours doing your accounts might help you write a better sonnet afterwards. Alternatively, if you find the world to be a fuzzy place in the mornings due to sleep inertia, which Mlodinow charmingly admits is true of him (“in my morning stupor I have done things like crack an egg into the sink and then start to fry the shell”), you will do your best writing soon after waking up.
I have plenty of anecdotal evidence to support this. But I will go beyond that. Very creative minds are often not completely focused on the creation itself ‘before it’. It may look like ‘preparing your mind’ for what comes next by not focusing on that too much. I love Werner Herzog’s Masterclass on film making in the fabulous masterclass.com. He spends a fair bit of his intro explaining how before starting the big day, first day of filming, he spends hours and hours listening to classical music, which will have nothing to do with the script of the movie. So he is preparing himself for the big day by not preparing for the big day. In fact, in the early chapters of that masterclass, he seems completely carried away reading some Nordic poems and asking the learner/user to reflect and digest, almost making you feel for a second that you have clicked into the wrong class.
I have no MRI data, or cognitive sciences studies to show, but I am convinced that exploring completely different worlds, ‘alien to the task’, focus then comes out much better.
We are becoming poor readers. The new generations are small screen generations. On the face of it, these are very focused. But the brain has not learnt well how to distinguish noise and signal. We fall in love for the signal and we want to apply the learning straight away to something, or we will feel guilty of un-focusing and non-delivering. We may just have to learn to give our brains a break by abandoning the push for the small here and now, the quick googling as ‘re-search’ (that is, search twice in Google) and perhaps allowing our minds to wander more before the end of wandering.
I wish these Daily Thoughts did a bit of that magic by transporting you somewhere else for a quick stop before you start your ‘day focusing’. Nothing would make me happier.