Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Focus Versus Obsession

In my previous post (the one about smoking, weight loss, and jazz trombone), I used terms like "all-consuming" and "single-minded focus". This may have given the impression that I brought an obsessiveness to pursuing my goals - or, worse, that I think obsessiveness is the only way to reach goals.

No. But the distinction can be difficult to understand. So little regard is paid to the notion of "focus" in our society that the word has come to stink of geeky obsessiveness. Indeed, the "normal" American lifestyle is specifically designed to stomp out focus (at least: focus on anything besides primal drives like sex, power, stimulation, and material accumulation). Not long ago, only alcoholics worked systematically to extinguish their focus. These days, we're all drunks.

I didn't spend 2009 obsessing over weight loss. I just "favored" decisions leading to that. Go with friends to a new barbecue place or stay home and eat salmon? Choice B! Stuck in car with friends visiting new barbecue place: eat a ton, or just have a bite? Choice B! Not obsession, just a patient, persistent, focused favoring of actions destined to lead to a distant but prized result. I put my attention on this process.

I wasn't suggesting that by taking my mind off weight loss for a moment, I'd doomed myself to pack on a few pounds. It's that I was focused on shaving my decisions a different way, in pursuit of a different result. I was using the process for another purpose.

For the most part, we needn't focus so hard. Most of us have most aspects of our lives more or less under control and within reasonable parameters. Those things which get away from us - the extra twenty pounds or declining French language skills - are ruefully accepted. We juggle our many balls, accepting that some will inevitably drop. That's life!

But sometimes we're moved to attempt radical change. The best route is not obsessive striving; just a patient, long-viewed steady skewing of the decision-making process. Attention focused on process, not goal. And at such times, you just can't skew your decisions toward multiple goals. One's hard enough! Everything else in your life needn't drop, but every other focused process must.

So I'll stop my music focus for a while. I'll still play, but it will no longer be "the thing I'm working on", and magical levels of improvement will cease. And I'll either "work on" diet, or I'll deem the extra twelve pounds acceptable and move back into a more relaxed, divided process of decision-making for a while...until some new change beckons.

Here's a comic that makes the basic point, though drastically over-simplified. For one thing, it fails to take into account the crucial concept of serendipity - good results that aren't exactly what you were aiming for. And results are always a little serendipitous, given that we rarely hit our mark precisely, however persistent our steering. If we focus on process, something resembling the original goal eventually lumberingly appears in some surprising fashion, its appearance utterly out of our control.


Tom Armitage said...

I agree, Jim. First comes the process of setting priorities and making choices. Then comes "focus" -- the process of acting in a way that is consistent with those choices and priorities. But, all this is way too "mechanical" to realistically achieve totally in our lives. So we muddle and stumble along, and allow serindipity to weave its magic through out lives. It's a crazy, inconsistent, unpredictable process, but wonderful.

Jim Leff said...

Thomas, I appreciate your reading and commenting, but we actually don't agree at all. I'll explain why in an upcoming article, which hopefully you'll find interesting! :)

Unknown said...

“Attention focused on process, not goal,” when the process is described as “favoring of actions destined to lead to a distant but prized result.” So is “result” different than “goal”? Is the process independent of the desired result of that process? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

Jim Leff said...

John, quite right. I'm not expressing the distinction (which is subtle to begin with) well. This Slog is mostly to jot down thoughts-in-progress, and I don't always wait until I've got mature clarity. And I ask readers to spend time pondering along with me; after a writing career where I learned to predigest everything in order to offer super ergonomic prose, I'm enjoying NOT doing that here! So it takes some thought on the reader's end. On the other hand, if you're reading this site, that means you share some of the same musings....so encouragement to think in new ways - even if I'm not maxi-clear - is a worthwhile thing, hopefully!

To your question....

Friends ask me why I'm working so hard on music. I have to reply "I don't know". They ask me what I intend to do with music once I've regained my technique. I just look grin and shrug. The best I can say is "I like playing heartfelt notes". This makes me seem capricious and rudderless. .

Actually, on the contrary, I'm mega committed and more grounded than at any time in my life. I just don't know where I'm headed with it. But the point is that I'm really really really really serious about the process.

Attention to process. Not to goal. Don't know where I'm going, but today I played a little better than yesterday. I'm making something magical happen. But I don't have my "eye on the prize", because the prize is the process. Like concentrating on the journey rather than the destination. Though not in a Zen cliche sort of way. I don't like glib spiritual aphorisms much.

The more I focus on process, the better my life works. The more I've schemed/planned/dreamed/yearned for goals, the more disappointing things have always turned out. The good stuff happens when I'm seized with inspiration and work immersed in process. Rather than seized with ambition and working from a need for a given result.

Process, not goal. It's nearly un-American. But it works.

Blog Archive