Finding the Right Level of Focus

On NPR’s TED Radio Hour, Arctic explorer Ben Sauders was asked what he thought about during his attempt to ski solo to the North Pole. He described his mental image of himself, a small red dot of body temperature in a vast field of freezing cold blue the size of the United States, standing on few inches of ice floating over miles of black ocean – but he quickly said that he tried not to think about that very much. Mostly, he focused on two things: the menial tasks that keep him alive and the ultimate goal of getting home.

Finding the Right Level of Focus

Saunders set for himself the very ideal of a BHAG – Big Hairy Audacious Goal. It’s more or less his method in life. As I’m writing this, Saunders and a partner are attempting to recreate (and complete) Robert Scott’s failed expedition to the South Pole. This kind of attempt requires years of planning and a tremendous vision for what’s possible. Once in the middle of the actual mission, though, Saunders adjusts his focus to those things that will keep him alive and motivate him to continue. Without the big picture planning, though, even Saunder’s world-class survival skills would mean nothing, because he wouldn’t have a route to follow or the means to return home.

Finding the right level of focus has been something I’ve struggled with. Often, when beginning my day, I’m tempted to begin attacking the details of whatever problem appears in my inbox as I’m finishing my first cup of coffee. Through difficult experience, however, I’ve learned that I need to take a step back, look at my schedule for the day and week, and quickly review my project and action lists before diving into the details of a specific problem.

Sure, maybe this particular problem – say, a tricky Excel spreadsheet – is making a lot of noise at 8:15, but if I don’t realize that I have a 9:00 meeting to prepare for, or a looming project due in 5 days that still needs 4 days of work, I’ll have misspent my time. Periodically, I’ll look at my work from even higher perspectives – what David Allen in Getting Things Done calls the 10,000, 20,000, and 30,000 foot levels. Unless your job solely involves high-level strategy, however, there also comes the time to focus very tightly on the work immediately in front you – such as getting the formulas right in that tricky Excel file.

Even though it can be difficult to find the right focus at the right time, it’s an essential skill for managing our work. What about finding the right level of focus for the meaning of our work? Focusing at the right level when thinking about the meaning of our work can help motivate us properly, as well as help put our work into the proper perspective. A few examples might help explain what I mean.

Putting Your Work into Context

Few of us have day jobs as thrilling as Ben Saunders, yet even in his work, a great deal of his time is spent in tedium. On NPR, he described the mundane process he goes through on one of his expeditions; a typical day might involve 8 to 10 straight hours of skiing across barren ice. (That Excel spreadsheet is starting to sound better, isn’t it?) When you’re faced with tedious repetition, it can be helpful to focus on the larger meaning of your work to help you stay motivated. Keeping with the Excel spreadsheet – perhaps it is measuring quarterly sales numbers (stay with me), which in turn guide the number of new employees to bring on, which could mean increased income and support for dozens or hundreds of families. In this context, getting the spreadsheet right becomes very important.

As another example, your work may serve an important purpose. I’ve known many people who work behind-the-scenes at nonprofit organizations, handling unglamorous-but-necessary tasks like technical support, accounting, and administrative work. (I’ve done some of that myself, in fact.) Without their contributions, the organization could not have pursued its mission – even the best intentions fall apart when there’s no one keeping the email running! For-profit companies, too, generally serve valuable purposes, or else they wouldn’t exist. When struggling for daily motivation, think of the families that are fed, valuable products that are made, or important services provided by your company as a whole.[1]

At a more personal level, your work likely supports your family, other people important to you, and maybe even causes that you care about. When I’ve faced tough days at work, I have often looked at the photos of my kids on my desk and remembered how much they rely on me and my work. I’ve also known people who have saved substantial portions of their income so that they could give it away. For them, their work enabled them to change the world, even when their actual work didn’t.[2]

The next time you find yourself wondering about the point of your work, take a few minutes to change the focus of your attention:

  1. Who are you helping through your work?
  2. What big goals are you contributing to, even if in only the smallest possible way?
  3. Who is relying on you to do a good job?

Perhaps these simple questions can help put your work into perspective.

Photo Credit: Michael Dales via Flickr

  1. And if you can’t think of anything valuable that the company does, perhaps that tells you something about why you feel unmotivated.  ↩
  2. On the other hand, it may occasionally be necessary to narrow our focus and ignore the context of our work. This can sometimes result in complicity with corruption and evil, but there are other times when the great urgency or importance of our work is too overwhelming for us to contemplate. Like Saunders focusing on the task of staying alive, we focus on what is immediately in front of us. As an extreme example, I imagine that the doctors and nurses involved in trauma surgery to save a person’s life don’t spend much time reflecting on the meaning of what they do in the middle of the operation – the step-by-step process of saving the person’s life takes all of their attention.  ↩

Leave a Reply