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.

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