Friday, August 3, 2012

Generating Tons of Value While Lacking Focus

The reason why people want focus is because when they are unfocused, they don't seem to create much value. But, what if you could create as much value when you're completely unfocused? Lets spend a few minutes looking at that.

First off, when I talk about an unfocused individual, I don't mean lazy and tired and lacking motivation, I mean that they have a great amount of energy, but they can't seem to direct it at the right stuff. You're excited, energized, but you don't know how to use that energy. This is a common problem among lots of bright, talented folks.

The Power of Having Focus

We understand that focusing on a single idea to the exclusion of other things, is generally very productive. When you have focus and you're in the zone, focus is a multiplying factor for getting stuff done. Distractions are an inverse multiplier for creating productivity.

That's why, in a workplace setting, some great developers won't even talk to you until they've purged their entire cache of code before stopping to speak with you. At a company I worked for a while back, there was a developer there who would spend 30-90 seconds finishing his thought before we would even turn around and address you. It was awkward for everyone, but that was his way of clearing his cache and making sure he found a good stopping place he could return to at the end of the unwanted interruption.

Mental focus allows us to have a single, unbroken line of connected thought. It allows us to do a deep dive and see the next 10 moves we want to make. It allows us to be come the Bobby Fisher[1] of coding, of accounting, of metalwork, of brand analysis, or of real-estate. Focus allows us to see the big picture end-to-end and have all the context for the problem set in our head. This allows us to make smart decisions about how modifications in one part will have downstream effects elsewhere. Whereas, when you don't have the whole context in your head, the small changes you make aren't well thought-out and can have negative effects.

The Power of Lacking Focus

The cool thing is that focus is not necessarily the mother of creativity. Creativity happens in the world between concentration and random thought. If you concentrate on something too specific, it can destroy creativity. When you're in the weeds and unfocused, its a great time to be creative, to brainstorm.

As a developer, at the end of the night when I go home from my day job and I sit down and begin to think about the problems I can attack, the majority of the problems that I want to attack are way too large to fit into the time I have to write code. So, often the best use of that time, when I don't have enough to get into the zone, would be to brainstorm and come up with creative approaches to things, or come up with new ideas for businesses.

So, the power of being in the weeds and unfocused is that you can allow yourself some completely unhibited brainstorming of the most crazy things, crazy ideas that hopefully solve real problems. That's how you leverage a lack of focus.

The key is in recognizing whether you have time to focus, to get in the zone, or not. For me, its a good rule of thumb to say that if I have 2-3 hours of time to sit down and work uninterrupted, then I can knock out a fairly complex implementation and feel good about the result. However, if its 30 minutes or an hour, then I will default to my old habits of piddling around on HN, Reddit, or CNN. And that's where the problem lies, right? I'm using the lack-of-focus time to goof-off instead of being creative. I have defaulted into being a consumer and not a producer. Use that time to play. If I simply could play around with a new concept, whether it's riffing on a guitar, or coding up an experimental app, then that would be a powerful way to use my unfocused time.

Things to do when you can't focus (software startup edition):

  • Draw mockups for that business idea you have.
  • Setup a blog, write a blog post about your product idea.
  • Get out your banjo, harmonica, or whatever, and write a jingle for your business
  • Experiment on how to calculate LTV or COCA in your app.
  • Think of a product hook, that is, a reason for a journalist to write about you.
  • Research your competitors (be careful, this can be a trap), and come up with one feature that you can do better that they can.

Knowing when you have time to focus and when you should be creative takes discipline, because you'll want to default to your consumer mentality. It takes a certain amount of focus to be able to know when to focus. :). But, if you can convince yourself that unfocused time is creative play time, then you can extract a lot of value from that spare 30 minutes or an hour.

Who knew that lacking focus could be a superpower?

[1] Bobby Fisher was a chess champion who could visualize his next 12 moves on the chess board when playing against opponents.

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Art & Commerce

In the 2002 film "Nickolas Nickelby", based on the book of the same name by Charles Dickens, an amazingly brief scene shows us the...