Notes on focus and attention

Focus and attention are inputs to producing excellent things. All the talent in the world won't get me far if I’m not focused or attention isn't working in my favor. Beyond my skills at whatever I’m making (software, teams, products, essays, etc.), I need attention and focus.

In other words: I want to make what’s important to me: teams, writing, and software. I need focus to decide what to write/build with excellence. I require attention to sustain that focus.

Henrik Karlsson on multi-armed bandits and focus. First, explore to find what I might want to focus on:

The trick is to collide your mental model with the outside world as often as possible. This is what exploring does. You think you know the distribution of payoffs of the slot machines, but you try something new. You discover that you were wrong. You update your model.

This is a life design thing. Get out in reality, seek novelty, try plenty of things, “touch grass” with the world outside my mental model, the more the better. Experience a bunch of things, surround myself with intriguing, intense, or impactful people.

Surely things could have gone differently for me if I’d done more exploring when I was twenty-something. But, much less of the world was available to me then. More important that I figure out the world needs exploring now and then and that I can explore even with the responsibilities of my forty-something years.

After the exploration, “exploit” what I’ve found. Choose a few things and go deep on them. Things which resonate with me and make me think “this is a thing that I can do or invest my time and effort in”. I start doing it and that is focus.

But, really choose those “pillars” of focus. If I pick seven things, I haven’t really chosen. Pick a few of these things, leave several on the cutting floor. Don't construct some wild productivity system where I can spread my energy out over the seven days of the week, over seven areas of alleged focus and get nothing done (except possibly create a wobbly ideology and maybe a video course selling it 🌶️).

May I recommend the rule of three? It’s great.

Focus-and-exploit lets the brain work the problem even when offline, away from keyboards and tools. Pro-tip: mundane chores are an excellent tool here. e.g. take a shower, mow the lawn, go for a walk.

Why would focus compound? Part of it is time. If you care about less, you spend more time doing what you care about most. Also, you are always nonconsciously processing the thing you focus on. So cutting priorities means you work even when it looks like you’re not working. These days, I’ll spend the afternoon playing with the kids, doing the dishes, repairing the houses—being busy in a mind-clearing way. Then, when I sit down to write the next morning, I can type 700 words without thinking. The ideas have been churning in my head, just below the surface of conscious thought, and come fully formed.

If you're really focused, your brain is always working on those three pillars. It's thinking about whatever it is you're doing, turning over problems, processing that information, compiling it, organizing it while you sleep, and while you do mundane things.

Austin Kleon suggested a similar approach. When he runs out of writing/creative energy, he cleans his pool. Basically, he takes his thinking mind out of the loop. Lets his physical body do something routine and mundane to invite the creative mind to return. (Sorry, I can’t remember which Austin Kleon thing I saw this as a comment on. 🤦🏻‍♂️)

If you like this explore and exploit stuff, you’re going to really dig Kent Beck’s ideas about explore, expand, exploit.

On the other hand, allowing ideas into my sphere of thought from social feeds designed to put me in a bad mood or get me to buy stuff breaks the focus. I need attention.

Craig Mod, How I Got My Attention Back:

If I tell people I went offline for a month, it’s like telling them I set up camp on Mars. It hints of apostasy, paganism. Tribes seem to find pleasure in knowing all members suffer equally. But, really, is the situation so dire that we can’t wrangle a little more control? We’ve opted into this baffling baseline of infinite information suck, always-availability. Nobody held a gun to our head. We put our own mouths on the spigot every single day.

But it’s so delicious. That spigot goo — buoyed by pull-to-refreshes and pings and wily dots. Giving up attention, so seductive.

I can’t focus if my attention has me thinking of “5 amazing one-takes by Scorsese” or “INSANE Porsche 911 builds”. 🧠🫠 Too much social media feed is an inescapable gravity well of wandering thoughts. Modern, programmed attention makes it difficult to think our thoughts or sustain them.

However, disconnection is a luxury, and a bit ascetic. The real tactic requires figuring out how to thread the needle, striking a balance between connectedness and Waldenponding.

So I need guidelines, even when discipline wanes:

The internet goes off before bed. The internet doesn’t return until after lunch. That’s it. Reasonable rules. I’m too weak to handle the unreasonable.

What works for me:

  • Remove the glaring offenders in my “attention” life. Mute, unfollow, etc.
  • Set coarse rules that protect my time to focus. e.g., I take the first hour of my day for a writing routine, while my energy is high and the world is mostly asleep instead of eager to distract me.
  • Remove decision-making. I listen to the same album on repeat during my writing session (currently, A Love Supreme). I work through the same five-item to-do list every time to get my energy going.

Attention and energy are finite. Don’t worry when one or both dwindle. At the end of the day, after numerous meetings, the weekend after a long week. That’s when it’s basically okay to allow a little temptation into your day. Don’t succumb to hustle culture! I encourage you to take a break from crushing it now and then.

Excellence. This bit started with trying to figure out how focus and attention generate excellent work. In particular, I need more than acumen and experience to make exceptional things, teams, organizations. I need to choose the right thing to focus on. But, tying up excellence with identity can cause misery or generate path dependence. I require honesty with myself when I’m doing great work and when I’m going through the motions to keep the work going. Focus and attention are preconditions for making excellence.

I Swear, I Really Wanted to Make a 'Rap' Album but This Is Literally the Way the Wind Blew Me This Time – Andre 3000

It’s all works in progress. Many posts are rough drafts I put out there to keep myself going. I have no idea which ones will stick and which ones will bounce. Plenty of drafts and following the way the wind blows me.

I know that if I let my attention wander, I will put less out there. Ergo attention. And I know that if I try to make several kinds of things, I will put less out there. Ergo focus.

Teams and organizations have focus and attention, too. Builders — developers, designers, etc. — focus on their slice of a problem. Teams focus on the problem as a whole. Organizations focus on solving problems that generate an impact on the metrics or goals they’re chasing.

Priorities are the attention of a team or organization. The negative space in those priorities reflects problems and impacts the group will say “no, thanks” to. That suggests a tidy way to think of personal and group attention; we should say “no, thanks” to attention-sinks which aren’t aligned with our personal goals and priorities. “No, thanks” to algorithmic feeds when our goal is to write, for example.

(Time to land this thing.)

Focus is a capacity to get stuff done. To choose a problem and put many hours and days into it. A sense of purpose, if that’s your thing.

Attention is deciding what the mind is thinking about. Attention can complement focus, or derail it. It’s how minutes turn to hours, in good ways (or bad).

Shallow focus and attention see us bouncing from one idea to another. Often, without our intention to intervene (i.e., dopamine hits). The good focus and attention turns minutes into hours of engagement and days of interesting work into the weeks and months of a notable career or legacy of work.

Adam Keys @therealadam