When to Focus. And when not to.
If there was one buzzword that you could use to describe productivity & hustle culture the twitter bros have been tweeping about for the past few years, it would undeniably be Focus. People have written books about it, there are numerous podcasts on it and companies have been selling everything from Nootropics to Lions Mane mushrooms to increase focus. I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t used many, if not all of the hacks to increase my focus while working on certain problems in my daily life. From Lions Mane Coffee & cold showers, keeping my phone on DND and muting all notifications, to eating more eggs (increases Choline which is a neuro modulator that helps us focus), I’ve tried it all. It works, no doubt & my ability to hunker down & get things done is pretty good if I may say so to myself.
Yesterday though, I stumbled upon something which made me reconsider my (slightly) unhealthy attachment to focus. In the spirit of being a little easier on myself and listening to my body more this year, I woke up relaxed & didn’t feel like doing my daily morning routine of get up and go go go. Instead, I lazed for a bit, made a cup of regular caffeinated coffee (I’ve switched mostly to decaf for the past few weeks) and sat on my desk. Ignoring my meticulously crafted weekly calendar, I leisurely went down a rabbit hole of newsletters that I like reading and stumbled upon an idea for something I’m working on. I spent the next three hours developing that idea, in what I can safely say was a state of complete flow & managed to do some work I was extremely proud of.
This got me thinking about how Focus, while great to get things done, might not be the best tool for creativity. Focus requires a narrow field of few, where you’re thinking solely of the problem at hand, the task you’re trying to achieve & fixated on getting it done. While thats a great thing for progress & execution of ideas, getting good ideas is a different story altogether.
The creative process requires experimentation, free thought, a well rested mind and most importantly, time. It might not be great for getting things done but I feel like you can divide the work that you do into two distinct phases:
- The Creative phase : No focus, lots of relaxation & exploration, playing with new ideas and letting go.
- The Execution phase : Focus, no distractions, relentless head down execution.
Yesterdays example was an uncharacteristically short feedback loop where the Idea Phase & the Execution Phase aligned. I don’t think this is a good benchmark to hold myself to because these times are far and few between. The Creative Phase might last for a few days or weeks depending on the work you’re doing. A business idea, a book or an album might take weeks or months of preparation before you actually get into execution mode & get going. A product feature, blog post or tune for a chorus might be readily available in your daily life.
When working, it might do good to differentiate between the two & know which part of the process you’re in. Focus during periods of creativity might not be helpful. Exploration during periods of execution may slow you down.
Listen to the pundits & tweepers when you’re in execution mode, but listen to yourself when you’re in idea mode.