Focus, Attention, and Persistent Problems

People use the words “focus” and “attention” interchangeably, and maybe that’s fine for everyday use.  When it comes to learning a skill, though, the difference between them is monumentally important.

Attention is exactly what it sounds like.  Paying attention.  Being able to notice something.

Focus is different.  Focus is narrowing your attention.  I think of it as the opposite of “diffuse”. Something that’s diffuse is like the soft glow of a light bulb, or a cone of light that spreads out 180 degrees in front of you. By contrast, something that’s focused is like the tight, narrow beam of a laser.

To put it plainly, focus is tunnel vision.  One sounds good and one sounds bad, but they're the exact same thing.

I think it’s much more useful to use “focus” interchangeably with “tunnel vision” than with “attention”.  You can pay attention while being focused, and you can pay attention while being unfocused.  Being unfocused doesn’t mean you aren’t paying attention, it means you aren’t ignoring everything in the universe except your favorite thing.

Focus is helpful sometimes, which also means it’s unhelpful other times.  When focus doesn’t help, being unfocused does.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter--persistent problems.  Problems that you have now, have had for awhile, that just will not go away no matter what you do. Every solution to every persistent problem has one thing in common: you find them by being unfocused.  Why?

If what you’ve been doing was going to fix the problem, it wouldn’t be a persistent problem. You would have solved it before it reached “persistent” status.  The primary problem is that you’re focused.  You have tunnel vision, and the answer is outside the tunnel.

This is conceptually straightforward, but actually doing it can take years of therapy and decades of wisdom, although it doesn't have to.  I’ve been ignoring the fact that our persistent problems are very good at pulling us in, convincing us they’re the most important thing in the world, and locking us into tunnel vision because THIS IS IMPORTANT DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND?!!

The solution to your problem doesn’t magically move inside the tunnel just because your problem is important.  

It’s critical that you understand this, because you’re going to be constantly tempted to get sucked back in to focusing on your problem, instead of keeping the diffuse, unfiltered, unfocused perspective you need to figure out what to do next.

I’ve developed a little mantra that I tell myself whenever I bump up against a problem I’ve had just a bit too long.  I tell myself: “If I have a persistent problem, I will ignore it completely and pay attention to anything else”.  The point isn't to actually ignore the problem, but simply to include additional information in your awareness.  But when you're stuck and bothered by a problem, doing that very often feels like "completely ignoring" it, which is why I phrase my little mantra that way.  It reminds me it's ok if it feels that way.

It's worth mentioning--this is hard.  This is a much bigger reason why our problems persist than we give it credit for.  It turns out that frowning and blinding yourself to the information you need to solve a problem doesn't work very well.

Additionally, pride can lock our focus into place.  Part of the reason we focus on our problem is that we think we have things basically figured out.  We think we know what’s important, what’s unimportant, and what’s in the middle.  We know that we should focus on this, whereas that is peripheral, and the other thing is merely a distraction.

Abandoning our focus implies that we don’t have a working understanding of what’s most important and most deserving of our attention.  In an area where you consider yourself an expert, that's pretty hard to do.

But if increased skill is important to you, you will do it.  Whatever gets us past our persistent problem will be one of the things we’ve decided we’re supposed to ignore. It will feel peripheral, even unrelated to your problem.  It isn’t on the map you’ve been using, which is why you never tried it.

And things that you don't try don't work.