On creativity and wielding your focus engine better.

Three modes of focus to master if you want to create better

Intense Focus, “Lack of Focus”, and Haphazard Focus

There are many things that stand in the way of us becoming our more creative selves. For me, a big one seems to be the idea of focus in its varied states. Intense focus, lack of focus, haphazard focus— all the forms can be my greatest asset and biggest weakness somehow simultaneously. It boils down to this: want to be more creative? Learn how to wield your focus engine more effectively.

Sometimes you want to push that machine pedal-to-the-metal, balls-to-the-wall like a wailing, flaming bucket of fire-breathing steel. You’re Rat-Finking it. You’re pointed somewhere specific and your only goal is getting there yesterday. Meanwhile you can smell something burning—you hope it’s not your eyebrows. But damn if the smoke doesn’t smell just like the singed forearm hair from the last time you took something from the oven without opening the door all the way. This frantic, tunnel-vision is a viable focus-mode for creation. It’s intense and a little uncomfortable because you’re choosing to ignore a lot. Wipe your wind-watering eyes, mash the pedal, and white-knuckle that wheel.

Other times, you need to find a nice shade tree to park that bucket of rust under. Get out and stretch your legs a little. If you see a butterfly, follow it. See where it lands. See if fat toad eats it before it lands. See if it lands on you—then eat it yourself. See if it tastes like a strawberry with wings, then wonder why it doesn’t because why would they be packaged so similarly if not? Then think about the person who first ate an oyster and how she’s kind of a legend now because she figured it out: take a muddy rock from the bottom of the ocean, crack it open, receive a jewel, then suck out the slimy membrane. “Gather round all, I have something to share… Yes, you eat it. No, you don’t chew it. Well you can if you want.” She took a lot of chances to find out how delicious and comradely slurping slimy things off crackers around a bucket of beers could be. Surely you could take a chance on a strawberry with wings. Meander a bit. See where the wind takes you. This lack of focus is an equally important mode of creation.

The third state of focus could be called haphazard focus. It’s a hybrid of the first two. The main difference is that you’re not going to follow the butterfly, or even taste it this time, you savage. Look, I know you’ve developed a taste for the delicate insect now- the thin lace of the wings against your tongue, the brief fluttering and the firm squish between your teeth—but it’s kind of a bad look for you in the park around all these kids. People are really against eating unconventional flying things these days, too. And I don’t really blame them with the pandemic and all… You need to weigh the risks in this mode of thinking. It’s not quite as random. You can follow the butterfly- but don’t dwell on it. This stage looks random— especially to “intense focusers”, but it’s almost like a data-collection. You’re testing assumptions- maybe about where the butterfly lands, you’re questioning your approach- maybe you decide to follow a duck instead of a butterfly (just don’t follow a kid-especially if the parents saw what you did with the butterfly); you’re really broadening your capabilities here, so don’t be afraid to skip around. Don’t be afraid of all the superficial data points you come away with. You probably won’t use three quarters of them, but you will get a real sense of how things connect. This haphazard focus is also difficult for analytical creators because we tend to be obsessive and we want to know things front to back before we feel comfortable enough to start.

To be “creative” is to be able to switch between these modes at will over the course of a project, a lifetime, a brainstorming session-whatever.

Intense focusers can get stuff done. But whether or not it “will land” is another matter.

Honestly if you work in a creative space (which is different from working creatively in a space), this is probably the mode you rely on most. It lets you hit deadlines, it lets you act quickly and be decisive. It lets you set your sights on something and run it down like a doe-eyed deer caught in the high-beams on the backroads open-throttle. It’s great and every creator needs this hell-on-wheels tool in their kit. But in creative industries, people can get stuck here. Some of you might be wondering what’s wrong with being able to get more done, faster? Welp, it makes your ideas suck. Mine, too. Yeah you can take something from an idea and bring it into the world, but who asked for it? Who’s using it? Who’s paying any attention to your creation? Or was it just for you to check off the list? Which lots of the work is just checking things off the list unfortunately. Why do you think everyone’s COVID-19 commercials are exactly the same? Because we all have the same list of things to check off and we all have to get it done by EOD. To be clear, this work can still be considered “good” or technically sound. But it can never escape its main generic and forgettable characteristic. Honestly, it adds to the noise out there. Oddly, this work can be considered a sweeping success inside its echo chamber. The work can’t really live on outside of that or grow organically beyond the manufactured push because it’s too narrow in every way.

The time to get tunnel-vision on a project is at the end. It helps you finish. It’s your follow-through. Creators who don’t have this mode can’t finish work on-time or can’t complete it at a high quality. Creators who have too much of this have boring ideas and their best chance for success is to find an echo chamber or an unsophisticated audience who doesn’t mind noise.

Maybe you should focus on fewer things. Better yet, choose one thing that’s totally unrelated.

By lack of focus, I mean focusing on fewer things. To everyone else, this focus phase seems like getting lost in the weeds- and it is - to some extent. But that’s not the problem with this “focus on fewer” mode. The problem is not being able to switch out of this mode long enough to see a bigger picture, finish on-time, or talk about your ideas with non-nerds. Yes, you’re a nerd. You’re nerding out on a butterfly in the park— but you’re noticing a rich context. And honestly it’s not 100% about the butterfly because what you’ll notice is that you’ve given yourself a margin for whimsy and other ideas are percolating up there, too. Two major pieces of disparate context floating around your noggin aimlessly may have just shifted somehow to become a novel new idea. You never would have thought of it if it weren’t for the fact that you saw how ugly the butterfly body is juxtaposed with how beautiful the wings are and something about that contrast made it all fall into place for you.

People who can’t do this, who can never focus on fewer, seemingly unrelated things don’t give themselves any margins for magical ideas. They may create hundreds of things, but they’ll likely be missing that little spark. The work may be a little superficial, like a stock photo. It will have the right subject, but the context is just paper thin. It will be tasteless and lacking in sophistication.

However people who only focus in this way end up nerds. And that’s not a bad thing— at the very least they’ll know the audience. But they’ll have to realize the audience is way smaller than their exuberance. Which again, for hobbies, is fine, but if you need to communicate with anyone beyond your bubble, you’re going to flop. This is why a guy like Neil deGrasse Tyson is so special. He has nerd accolades, but he also understands contexts outside of astrophysicist academialand.

Maybe you should focus on more things and different contexts.

A main reason a Neil deGrasse Tyson can take his message from nerd dome into every living room across America is because he understands varied contexts and has universalized his message to fit. While context switching is a dirty word to some spreadsheet slaves and productivity preachers, it’s also the underlying key to engineering something that rings universally true. This realm maybe the hardest for most creatives to operate within. But it is one of the most important modes of focus because it will allow you to move more easily between intense focus and focusing on less. To use the public park example you really do follow the butterfly, but only briefly, then you switch and observe something else, then you may leave the park all together and go notice different things in different parks. It can seem haphazard for sure, and it is to be clear. But your ability to get the most from this comes down to your ability to remember or record the things you saw or the notions you had. This is why people journal, why artists doodle, and why writers still scrawl on scraps of paper. This is tactile management of materials for your art. It has honestly made been made worse by technology because for so long, it’s been a pain in the ass to doodle next to some chicken scratch on our phones. Which this is what our phones promise to be: our brains. Meanwhile the UI’s are still relatively antiquated for how a mind really works. Luckily it’s becoming easier with things like the Apple Pencil. Besides who wants to carry around a notebook like some brooding teen or that guy you met in a bar who has a 15-page formula for how anyone can “game” the state lottery. This haphazard state of focus is also difficult because there is a cognitive dissonance when it comes to writing things down in which their ultimate use is not abundantly clear. It’s another way the oafish optimization culture of today has minimized the collection and curation of unfocused materials (inbox zero, daily checklists, even Marie Kondo) from lack of foresight of what they could become—or even of what is needed in a creative process that’s to deliver something unique and comprehensive.

If you only have this type of focus you’ll have enough notes to out write a Russian novelist, but you won’t have a compelling narrative. You don’t even know what a butterfly does once it lands. You don’t know if it walks around a bit in circles or does a little hoping around like a grasshopper. Or does it just freeze because it has seen that crazy look you have in your eye when you’re about to eat something new for the first time. Yeah, you might know that there are three kinds of butterflies in this park vs. only one in the park near downtown- but that’s not a narrative; it’s nothing you can truly sink your teeth into.

This mode of focus can leave you feeling more accomplished than you are—but it’s a trap if you’re trying to actually create something. You need to see this as the transitory, maybe even default, mode that it is. Otherwise you’re going to have a hundred ideas and nothing to really show for them. Ideas are cheap and easy, but you gotta bring it all together to hit.

The Takeaway

If you want to create more or better, if you want to make your process more efficient, learn to live in each of these in a more appropriate way. Learn how to leave margins for navel gazing and deep dives into the weeds. Learn how to document and context switch; and lastly, learn how to tune everything else out when it’s time to start and finish something.

Notice which mode you’re in and ask yourself if it’s the right one for the project right now.