Saturday, May 15, 2010


Thinking today about the word focus. Well, about the concept of it, and of a certain kind of focus, that I suppose fits into the category of mindfulness.

I like to be aware of my surroundings in a loose and unconditional way. Not tensely expecting, yet not neglecting. Maybe this was influenced by an early study of martial arts. Anticipation of possible moves; being ready. (It's wasteful to prematurely launch into a specific posture if you are instead going to be asked to respond to an opposite move.) Honing your reflexes, holding a neutral stance, training your impulses to be able to leap into action in any number of directions, then return to a core stance.

My take on focus is somewhat different than behavior that resembles "tuning out." That variety of focus I regard as hypnotic, in a way. For example, I know of people who can be engaged in a task, a book, a phone call, or some other thing, and they are completely unable to describe any other activity that took place around them during that time. Not one thing. They might claim that they were in fact cognizant enough to know that surely nothing of note happened in that space of time. Meanwhile, it might instead be true that they were surrounded by activity, noisome and busy; such that their attention was probably warranted during the interval. But they "tuned it out." I'm not making a judgement on this, just pointing out a behavior that is one kind of focus.

Outside of this hypnotic kind of focus, another type comes to mind. One remains aware, while giving appropriate priority to a focused task. This attentive concentration at the same time keeps a figurative eye on the horizon. One isn't too easily distracted by other things; those are noted, filtered, and ignored or responded to only as needed.

I often find myself attentive to a task in a focused way, so that my immediate gaze, thoughts, posture, and movements reflect a quality of attention that wants to do the best possible job, and that gives due respect to the current arena of interest. This may mean that in the middle of a careful operation or tricky mechanical maneuver, I may drop something on the floor, but I won't immediately stoop to pick it up. An observer will think I didn't notice that it fell. Their comment is usually, "you dropped something" or similar. They may even pick up the item for me. I'm pretty sure that when they drop something, their first impulse is to stop what they are doing, and pick up the object. Even if they don't need the item in order to complete the task. I'm not faulting that person's impulse completely; but in a shared working environment, I don't encourage that style. (Don't get me wrong, I don't have tools or parts all over the floor; of course I do pick them up, when it makes sense in the order of things. Everything we do may not have the urgency and implications of something like, say, surgery, but there is sometimes good reason to resist the urge to "scratch one's nose."

It's just that If I'm working with someone on a detailed task, I don't want them breaking off just when the target is in view, just when they need to keep their eyes on their part of the task. I want them to focus. Being distracted by a fallen pen, lid, extra tool or whatever, to me is a possible sign that they aren't really paying attention, or fully engaged in the crux of the project. They may think I'm not present, when I curiously ignore the item. I am present--but not a slave to what to me is a mere distraction. I should say I'm not talking about the drop-in friend, or an untrained helper or "gopher" when I say this. Their best use while they learn may well be to work the periphery, pick up fallen items, procure parts and tools as needed for key workers. But I'd model to them to gravitate toward this kind of focus when they're at the center of a project.

Unless it's broken glass or some other hazard, I try not to break stride if I don't have to. The thing I've dropped, I almost always do notice as it falls. But my first impulse is to stay on point unless I really need the object. This is a style of focus I only sometimes notice in others.

Picture a chef in the kitchen, prepping food items, scooping skillfully cut pieces from cutting board to bowl. A few bits drop to the floor. In kitchens I've been in, it's the better chefs who finish the immediate task, and only then attend to incidental casualties. There are many reasons to focus in this way, and efficiency is high on the list of reasons. Why bend at each event, when more is sure to fall? Are they sloppy? Don't assume so. Are they in favor of a messy kitchen? Doesn't necessarily follow. If you watch the entire scenario you may see that a good chef ends each task with an equally focused period of straightening. The best clean and restore order as they go--but at logical intervals, not in jerky corrective maneuvers. Their focus is on the end product, and on which steps are essential to getting there, getting there on time.

There is a pace, a flow, to my favorite kind of focus. The order of tasks within a project is key. Not that I'm compulsively obsessed with the order; a new encounter with the same task may present things in a different order, and that's okay. Part of being good enough to do a task is being flexible enough to conquer it in different ways. But each encounter still benefits from avoiding fumbling with something twice if a more logical approach can prevent that. It pays to take a moment at the outset to think about the order of tackling something. A hasty focus on false priorities wastes time, and puts the effort off track.

This mindfulness or focus may be easier to develop for use as a technique alone. It is possible, but  harder to create in a team environment. I think of different endeavors, where two minds (or more) need to coordinate and focus together. I think it is a rare thing when it coalesces into a high order of working in tandem or unison. Many times what you get instead is closer to a clumsy compromise of shared effort.

In over ten years of competitive cycling, I only encountered perhaps three team mates who could naturally put together such a shared focus. This out of scores of team mates. It was completely gratifying to experience. Think of competing with someone who tuned in so well, that you barely thought about exchanging positions and they were there, taking the front, making your two-person team feel like one person. This can't merely be agreed upon in arbitrary schedules or split times. Changing conditions, terrain, and relative strengths being displayed over the course, it takes a sensitive and focused team mate to feel the pulse of the competitive machine you are trying to create together. Only then can expert skill be applied in pushing the team to its best effort. I had one team mate who needed no words between us, instead using experienced intuition and knowing what signs to read. (We hardly needed a speedometer to know our speed down the course when competing as a unit-- and once won a Thanksgiving turkey to prove it!)

In thirty years of working in a shop or trade environment, it was also the exception to sync up in this way. My dad was one who could, uniquely so, with a non-verbal kind of leadership that mostly modeled how to do a task. Succinct words of advice or troubleshooting, not a lot, kept the work pace and quality in line.

My oldest brother shares my craving for what I call "poetry in motion" in performing skilled tasks. He hates wasted steps and meandering approaches to problems. He recounts anecdotes of fellow workers habitually wasting time by making endless trips to obtain tools or supplies. After a while it was questionable if they were merely ineffective at making progress, or just lazy. Scouring around the jobsite eats up a lot of time, and at the end of the day little gets done. I love my brother's solution to this, at least the part about "not having the exact tool on hand." I love his approach because it is mine, too. One can learn to improvise, to keep the work moving. This doesn't mean spudging up a precision part by mauling it with the wrong tool. It does mean knowing other possibilities, and using them. A kind of selective "MacGyvering." If you have any kind of literal or metaphorical Swiss Army knife, you should know how to use it, and then some. Be able to do the job right in more than one way. (But do make it right.)  And try an extra helping of focus.