The racket or the net

When teaching the serve, great tennis coaches know to check for where their players look as they serve.

Beginner players inevitably look at the net as they want to get their serve over it. But, these players only conquer the serve when they learn to look at where their racket makes contact with the ball.

Every beginner thus learns that the best way to influence the outcome of a stroke is to focus intensely on doing justice to that moment of contact. They’ll need to read the situation quickly, set themselves up for the stroke, hit it, and follow through. The quality of that process will determine the quality of the eventual outcome.

The question for us, then, – as we start our weeks with a list of the outcomes we want to influence, are we focused on the racket or the net?

Principles of Focus

Focus is the continuous, iterative process of keeping the main thing the main thing.

The verb and noun forms of “Focus” mean different things. For simplicity, I’m going to call the the noun form “intensity.” So, intensity is the ability to be 100% engaged in what you are doing at any given time.

Focus and intensity are analogous to effectiveness and efficiency or leadership and management. The former is about doing the right things and the latter is about doing things right.

As a result, the whole point of focus is to ensure that we’re optimizing for the entire-ity of the main thing or goal or how we will measure our life. It is easier to understand this with a manufacturing analogy. It is useless for a car manufacturer to produce more doors than a chassis requires. Similarly, it is pointless to optimize on one part of our goal (say, our career) if all else is suffering. Making progress on the main thing in its entire-ity is productivity. Everything else is activity.

So, focus is how we stay productive. That’s exactly why the process of doing so is continuous and iterative – it is hard to stay productive as life happens.

Finally, it is helpful to think of focus as we think of balance in our lives. We are always in the act of balancing, never completely balanced. Focus is no different.

Redefine deep work

Cal Newport defines deep work as uninterrupted periods with full concentration on a single task free of distraction. Let me start by saying – I love Cal’s work. I just thought I’d offer a counter point to his notes on productivity while adhering to similar principles. I think the principle of intensity that governs the deep work idea as spot on. However, I’ve long contended that the deep work idea is less applicable in many roles in the modern workplace. My push is that we must all think about and redefine deep work for ourselves.

There are two principles we need to keep in mind as we redefine deep work for ourselves –

1. Our productivity = Focus x Intensity x Time 
The focus referred to here is focus as a verb. It is the continuous prioritization process we use to pick the best thing to do with our time. While deep work does focus on focus (there’s an idea), it is biased to increasing intensity over increasing focus. The idea emphasizes the act of full concentration on one task over picking the task itself.

2. There are two kinds of work – research work and connection work. The difference between the two is the number of coordination required with other human beings.
If you are a researcher in a university, you don’t need to coordinate with more than a few people – your research associates and collaborators. For maybe 3 months in a year, you add students to the list. If you are working in most “matrixed” organizations, however, you are dealing with at least 10 stakeholders on any given day. This may not apply as much if you are a programmer or a brand researcher but certainly applies if you are an Engineering manager or Brand manager. The difference in the nature of the work is that your days have a large number of small tasks – typically proportional to the number of co-workers with whom you need to coordinate. And, a big part of your effectiveness is your ability to focus on the most important small task at that point of time. This doesn’t mean you don’t have a large task for the week. It is just likely that it won’t be as important a component of how your success will be measured. Intense focus on just one task is likely to hurt you more than it’ll help you on most days.

This, then, brings with it a big associated challenge – how do you keep up intensity? The third principle that makes connection work hard is the principle of attention residue. Every time we switch tasks, we reduce our ability to be intense. We are more prone, as a result, to let our minds wander and be distracted by social media. However, going back to basic principles, intensity is still incredibly valuable.

Here are 3 ideas that might help –

1. Start the day and week with your top priority items for your day and week. On most weeks, this will be a fairly long list. Most coordination jobs have 2-3 key components (tracking numbers, coordinating with people, thinking about the longer term, etc.) and it is normal to have a few things to get done across all components on the list. The act of writing it down enables us to keep committing to focusing on them.

2. Be proactive about managing your time – schedule “deep work” days and batch process meetings. If you are part of a couple of recurring larger team meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday, batch most of your other meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday. Keep large swathes of time open for you to dive in to the chunkier tasks. As you take control of your calendar, I’d also suggest committing to a time when you get out of the office. A little bit of pressure brings out the best in us.

3. Redefine deep work based on the nature of your job. My job has a much higher connection component now than it did in most projects as a junior management consultant. My “job” as a graduate student attempting to learn, on the other hand, was largely research work. Each of these required me to redefine deep work. As I see it in my job now, deep work is the ability to work for large swathes of time without interruptions. No interruptions = no social media, no notifications, no checking personal email. The difference is that I don’t penalize myself for switching tasks. If I get 5 important small things done within an hour, then that’s great. If that involves writing 3 thoughtful emails, then that works too. The most important thing is keeping a focus on what is important. Deep work should still push you – it will just push your ability to focus over your ability to be intense a lot of the time.

As I do this, I’ve also learnt to keep an eye out for other variables that effect my ability to both focus and be intense – sleep, food, exercise, work location, etc. The way I design my life directly affects my ability to work deeply.

My belief is that – if there’s one thing that we must all take away from the deep work idea, it is that we must purposefully and intentionally design our lives for maximum productivity. We won’t be able to get there without the necessary mindfulness that the deep work idea requires. However, productivity is the act of moving toward a goal. And, for our goals, we must redefine our deep work as necessary.

The way of focus

The way of focus, fittingly, involves asking just one question – “Is this the best use of my time right now?” – over and over again.

Asking this question automatically requires us to evaluate if we’re spending wasting time focusing on urgent items vs. important ones. It means consistently understanding and evaluating trade-offs and, then, making the best decision given the constraints.

Relentless focus and great strategy are, in essence, the same thing.

focus, trade-offs

Redirecting focus

I find myself in a near constant battle with my mind to keep it focused on things I control. Granted, I’m probably more attention deficit than the average person. But, my mind’s desire to seek out and dwell on situations, relationships and possible future scenarios over which I have no control and which always take me down an unhappy path never ceases to amaze me.

I have only found one way to solve this – constantly work to redirect focus to myself.

Self centeredness is a dirty word in our time. I understand that. I’m in search for a new term – maybe “self focus” – to describe my workaround. The idea is simple – the more time I spend on thinking about stuff outside myself, the more helpless, discontent and unhappy I become. I see my role as that of a driver steering my mind towards thinking about what my priorities are, what I need to get done and how I can do them better.

My mind control program simply reads – when in doubt, redirect focus to self and spend time visualizing and thinking about things you control. Our actions, then, follow these thoughts.

And, that’s where the good stuff lies.

Or, at least, that’s been my limited experience.

Jony Ive on a focus lesson from Steve Jobs

When every bone in your body wants to do it because it is a great idea, when you even wake up thinking about it – and still say no because you are focused on something else. That’s focus.

We see Steve’s relentless focus again in the next lesson that Ive shares. Steve is so relentlessly focused on the product that he gives up his (and most human beings’) desire to be liked.

The latin root of “decision” is derived from “to cut” or “to kill.” Focus and great decision making go together.

No getting around focus

We’re all on a spectrum between obsessive compulsive and attention deficit. I am definitely firmly in the attention deficit side. We didn’t have too much testing for all of this when I was growing up in India so you just learnt to live with it. I am sure I’d have a dose of the hyperactive ‘H’ as well.

Ever since understanding this, I’ve designed my life around these characteristics. For instance, it used to really annoy me that I would never be able to hold my attention through an entire class when I’d observe friends around me do it with ease. It used to also annoy me that I could never get through an online tutorial or read a rule book. Now, I’m more tolerant to these quirks and don’t mind them as long as I’m aware of what’s happening. I don’t read rule books or watch online tutorials if I can help it. I listen to books more often than I read them. I prefer asking for directions rather than reading maps and I definitely expect myself to get distracted every few minutes. I treat that as completely normal and expect work sessions to be littered with lots of small breaks. I do email breaks and kill two birds with one stone. I banned Facebook feed breaks in April 2013 and have managed to stick to that ban – the Facebook feed is too much of a rabbit hole for someone like me. :-)

However, as I’ve been working hard on getting to my ideal life process (sleep, eat, exercise, read, meditate, be incredibly productive and reflect – consistently), I’ve realized there’s no getting around focus. And, here it is important to understand focus, both as a noun and as a verb.

Focus as a noun. Focus as a noun is our normal vision of focus – think someone bent over a library book for hours. This is hard when you are wired to be distracted. But, on the plus side, I’ve realized that folks like me tend to have speed on our side. I think our brains realize that the time we spend focused on something is precious and it aims to compensate for the distractions with increased intensity. In short, if you pay attention and work on this, distractions become no big deal. You learn to harness them productively.

Focus as a verb. This is where the magic lies. Focus as a verb is an intensive, dynamic and iterative process. Focus as a verb is when you understand your big directional goals, are deeply committed to them, and are going to leave no stone un-turned to get to them. This involves a relentless pursuit of the things that matter. It requires constant reflection to make sure you’re doing the right things and a mindset that just refuses to give up despite the many challenges you are to face. It is an overarching idea that governs your life. This is what obsessive leaders like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos have in spades.

The easier way to think about these 2 kinds of focus is to think of them as analogous to management and leadership. Management is getting things done efficiently while leadership is doing the right things in the first place. Once we learn to manage ourselves, focus as a noun becomes easy to deal with. The hard part is the focus as a verb. That’s where we prove our mettle as leaders of our own selves. That’s where the magic happens.

And, there is no getting around it.


Hat tip to Greg McKeown for the focus as a noun and verb insight