Attention and focus are two words that are fairly synonymous in normal usage, but to my mind have slightly different connotations. I notice that I use “attention” quite a bit, while “focus” tends to be used in self-development blogs and literature more commonly.
I use attention to refer to anything and everything that happens to be on our minds at any given moment. Focus refers to the placement of attention. When people use focus, they’re usually talking about a singular phenomenon, but attention can by whole or partial, hence terms like “Attention Deficit Disorder” or “Continuous Partial Attention.”
The distinction may seem academic, but it has implications for how we succeed or fail to channel our energies. A person can only focus to the degree that nothing else has his or her attention.
But we can also deliberately focus on the things that have our attention. This is essentially what a mind sweep does. We consciously acknowledge and write down everything in our immediate sphere of attention rather than ignore it and allow things to hover as cognitive flotsam. Through focus, we pay attention to what has our attention.
The limits of being proactive
A staple of personal management council is the admonition to “be proactive.” The image of individuals as actors rather than responders is certainly more heroic. If the opposite of someone who focuses on output is someone who focuses on consumption, than the proactive emphasis is justified.
But we need to be response-able, collecting and making decision on every new input that enters our world. A new input can be obvious, like an inter-office memo in an in-basket, something subtle, like the sarcastic remark from a co-worker that hints at dissolving friendship, or something even more subtle, like an inchoate need for a career change or transition to self-employment.
Focusing on input requires escaping the busy trap. Capturing and making decisions on things that aren’t already written down and planned means taking a momentary “holiday” from constant activity, and making time to bring unprocessed agendas to the foreground. Just as managers spend most of their day assessing situations and telling other people what to do (rather than doing things themselves), self-management is the art of taking time out to assess situations in order to make clear decisions on what to do next, so that the rest of the time can be spent doing tasks without simultaneously reassessing them.
Building the habit of spontaneous capture
If your mind is on something that you’re not doing, write down the thing you’re not doing. Don’t allow the time it takes to stop what you’re doing be an excuse to avoid taking time to capture what you’re not doing. The latter might be more important, or not; but there’s no way to evaluate the new thought objectively at the moment you’re otherwise engaged. Dump it out of your mind, throw it in your in-basket, then go back to what you were doing before, but now without the crosstalk of alternately recognizing and ignoring something new. Collecting distractions is a more reliable way to increase focus than an act of will.