When Do You Choose to Narrow or Extend Your Focus?

For years, I was a terrible photographer. When I took pictures of Mark and the children, I often cut off the top of Mark’s head. That was back in the days of film cameras and I never quite understood how to frame pictures. Until we developed those pictures, I didn’t realize how narrow my focus was. We laughed at those pictures, but I wasn’t satisfied.

Finally, I learned to extend my focus. However, now the people were much smaller. Those pictures weren’t much more satisfactory. I didn’t really understand how to frame pictures and where to focus until I got a digital camera.

But it wasn’t until I got a smartphone that I really learned how to take reasonable pictures. The feedback cycle was very short, the camera roll offered me feedback all “at once.” While I won’t ever be a professional photographer, I can take pictures and enjoy the results.

During the past couple of years, I’ve felt the tension of wanting to know more about the outside world (extending my focus) versus doing my work (narrowing my focus). Now that we have the war in Ukraine, I feel even more tension.

When I was learning photography, I could choose my feedback loop duration. I had control of how and when I gained knowledge. The only control I have over the external news is when and how I choose to consume it.

Right now, that’s hard for me. I want to have the news on all the time. While I know that doesn’t help, that’s what I want.

I’ve come up with some guidelines for me that might also help you.

How I Choose to Narrow or Extend My Focus

I love projects and deadlines. Deadlines help me focus and know what to do next. If you, too, are a deadline person, here are some ideas that might work for you:

  1. Choose what’s most important to you today, this week, and this month. (I often have several deliverables each week, never mind each month.) Write them down so you can see them. I use this to determine my focus.
  2. Choose how many times you will interrupt yourself and extend your focus. Write this down so you make a bargain with yourself. (If I don’t limit myself to some time per unit, such as morning or afternoon, I will continue to interrupt myself.)
  3. Decide what is most important today and make it a deliverable. If you can, slice that deliverable so you can finish something every 15-20 minutes. You might not finish for external consumption, but you can finish for yourself. I often have several interim deliverables in service of one major deliverable.
  4. Now, work in a loop, narrowing your focus:
    • Choose something off your list and work on it, uninterrupted for 15-20 minutes.
    • Is it time for your interrupt? (In my case, to check the news or social media.) If no, do another 15-20 minutes.
    • Continue this loop until you’ve finished something for today and managed your interrupts.

Does this seem like multitasking to you? Even if I have several deliverables, it doesn’t feel that way to me, because I get an item to a done state. I can safely put it down and get to the next thing. I have no dangling threads in my brain. Just finished-enough work to move to the next piece.

I work this way through the day, narrowing my focus to deliver to myself (or, in the case of this blog post, to you). And allowing my interrupts to extend my perspective to the outside world.

If you’re not a deadline person, I have no idea what to suggest. Maybe you can suggest something in the comments.

But that’s the question of the week this week: When do you choose to narrow or extend your focus?

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