Have you ever been driving along, on a stretch of road that you’ve driven a million times, and you suddenly realise you’re drifting into oncoming traffic, so with heart pounding, you swerve back into your own lane and curse your inattention and lack of focus?

That’s exactly what happened to me the other day, except it wasn’t due to a lack of focus.  In fact, I was focusing quite intently.  It’s just that I was focusing on one specific thing, and it wasn’t the road.

You see, it was raining, and I was distracted by the individual raindrops as they hit the windscreen.  Without me realising it, those drops of rain became my point of focus, and I stopped seeing the road beyond them.

Detail focus needs all of you

Intense focus on a specific detail requires you to give all of yourself to that detail, to the exclusion of everything else.  That’s how focus works – we tune in our attention fully, therefore assigning our resources to what is important in this moment.

Imagine a pole jumper, standing pole-in-hand, visualising the jump he’s about to make.  As he goes into his pre-jump visualisation, nothing exists for him except for what’s in his mind.  There is no crowd.  There is no pain.  There’s only the jump.

The same happens to you when you’re absorbed in the detail of your work.  When you’re intensely focused, you’re in the zone.  Much progress is made when you have this level of focus.

Detail focus needs time limits

While time spent in detail is valuable and necessary, staying in the detail for too long is disastrous for your results.

It’s so easy to justify staying in the detail – you’re doing vital work, after all, and planning the detail is an important key to success.  But detail focus is only one phase required for achievement.  At some point you must take action, prioritise, and learn from your experiences.  Imagine the pole vaulter staying in his visualisation and never even attempting the jump.

The right level of focus for you

Just how much time and energy you spend in deep focus will depend on the role you do and the results you need to get.  But everyone, no exceptions, must come up for a breath once in a while.  If you’re in a meeting and it’s getting heavy with detail, maybe it’s time to take a step back and check-in whether you’re on track with the purpose of the meeting.  If you’re working solo on a project, maybe you need to set a timer so that you take a breather once in a while.   If you’re analysing a problem and getting nowhere, maybe you need to step back and evaluate whether there’s another set of details you’ve excluded that needs to become part of the picture.

Travelling that well-known road

If you’ve been focusing on the raindrops instead of on the road ahead, then it’s time to look up and take control of your focus.  It just might save your results.  (And your life!)