Laserlike Focus In A Thunderstorm

I went to happy hour tonight with some of my coworkers and much merriment was had though they probably think I’m an anti-social sociopath by now. Many interesting topics came up, all of which I had some misinformed opinion on (I had been drinking of course) but one that I want to expand my thoughts on was the idea that no human being operates at peak efficiency in an environment where distractions and interruptions are the norm.

Gary said that he disagreed and that he knew at least one person who could, to quote “Focus like a laser in a thunderstorm”. Well, maybe I should say to paraphrase since again, I’d been drinking. I didn’t buy that at the time but upon more sober reflection, I realize that we were talking about two different things which is almost always the cause of disagreement between reasonable people.

Gary was talking about focus under difficult circumstances which not only possible but really the stuff of legends. Most people believe the ability to concentrate in trying circumstances to be a gift, one that people like Tiger Woods, Audie Murphy or Michael Jordan seem to be born with. However, I think anyone can learn to do this. Concentration is a skill, just like any other, and can be learned and improved upon through practice and hard work. Granted some people seem to be more talented than others but every one of us can get to the point where we can focus in trying circumstances.

Of course, this wasn’t what I was talking about, even though I was talking at the time (stupid beer). I was referring to the ability to perform difficult, mental work while operating under divided attention. I strongly believe that no human can perform any task, mundane or difficult, with divided attention as well as they could using undivided attention. I’ve written about Scott Berkun’s article Attention and Sex before but it still rings so true. No novel, no symphony, no scientific discovery, no anything has ever been accomplished while also texting, emailing, IM’ing and tweeting, whatever the hell that last thing is. Studies upon studies have been done showing that divided attention steals from our abilities while gratifying our base knowledge insecurity honed through years of evolution.

Forced interruptions are a form of divided attention. This decreases the ability of the individual to perform at his highest level. Regardless of your ability to concentrate in difficult circumstances, interruptions are by their very nature parasites on productivity. Tiger Woods may be able to concentrate better than any other golfer in the world during an 18 hole playoff in the US Open but that’s different from hooking him up to a remote Taser and randomly zapping him throughout the course of his round. The best golfer in the world would be reduced to a below average hacker if he had no control over his environment.

The ability to focus is wonderful but it does you no good if you can’t control your environment. Good software requires not only the ability to focus but also the freedom to concentrate. One without the other reduces even the best developers in the world to average.

4 comments on “Laserlike Focus In A Thunderstorm

  1. A fine distintion, from a fine mind *smile*. I wonder… perhaps the thing that most separates our points of view deals with target and choice.

    When there’s a Thunderstorm around you, well, it’s around everyone else too. It is generally targeted at a region rather than a person (lightning-struck golfers aside.) One can choose to acknowledge the Thunderstorm, admire its power and beauty, or not. One’s skills of concentration, God-given and/or learned, come into play, just as Scotch Drinker said.

    But, when you’re in flow (a usage that Scotch Drinker gave us last night) and someone taps you on the shoulder, well, that is no Thunderstorm. It’s a lightning-strike that you can choose to ignore or acknowledge. I think most folk would acknowldege it, even if only to see if it a nerd or a hoochie mama. And then you are out of flow…damage done.

    Scotch Drinker is right. These are two separate things.

    I believe the real reason Scotch Drinker demurred was his first two choices of beer were not available, interrupted his Beer Flow, and that let the noise of pending Grass Mowing Need to intrude.

  2. A fine distintion, from a fine mind *smile*. I wonder… perhaps the thing that most separates our points of view deals with target and choice.

    When there’s a Thunderstorm around you, well, it’s around everyone else too. It is generally targeted at a region rather than a person (lightning-struck golfers aside.) One can choose to acknowledge the Thunderstorm, admire its power and beauty, or not. One’s skills of concentration, God-given and/or learned, come into play, just as Scotch Drinker said.

    But, when you’re in flow (a usage that Scotch Drinker gave us last night) and someone taps you on the shoulder, well, that is no Thunderstorm. It’s a lightning-strike that you can choose to ignore or acknowledge. I think most folk would acknowldege it, even if only to see if it a nerd or a hoochie mama. And then you are out of flow…damage done.

    Scotch Drinker is right. These are two separate things.

    I believe the real reason Scotch Drinker demurred was his first two choices of beer were not available, interrupted his Beer Flow, and that let the noise of pending Grass Mowing Need to intrude.

  3. Scotch Drinker

    July 13, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    I think your lightning strike is a better analogy than you carry it to. When you get struck by lightning, you typically don’t ignore it and in fact, you turn out to be pretty scrambled. Interruptions while in a state of flow are exactly like that. The stack of cards you build up in your head regarding what you are working on tumble to the table and the productivity is gone.

    I don’t think you have a choice to ignore interruptions. The very fact that you have to take your concentration and apply it somewhere else, even if it’s to decide whether you will allow yourself to be interrupted or not, results in broken concentration.

  4. Scotch Drinker

    July 13, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    I think your lightning strike is a better analogy than you carry it to. When you get struck by lightning, you typically don’t ignore it and in fact, you turn out to be pretty scrambled. Interruptions while in a state of flow are exactly like that. The stack of cards you build up in your head regarding what you are working on tumble to the table and the productivity is gone.

    I don’t think you have a choice to ignore interruptions. The very fact that you have to take your concentration and apply it somewhere else, even if it’s to decide whether you will allow yourself to be interrupted or not, results in broken concentration.

Comments are closed.