Focusing attention with In-Out Focus Circle

With many things trying to get your attention, it can be difficult to find and keep focus on the activities that are important to execute. This blog is about a simple technique for finding and keeping your focus for work activity.

Consider this photograph …Sunflowers in and out of focus
(c) Microsoft Office Images/mp900178459

How many flowers are there?
How many flowers are in-focus? How many are out-of-focus?
Why would a photographer create a photo that is simultaneously in and out of focus?

Like the photographer, we use our physical eyes to control what is in our field of vision. So too with our conceptual eyes, we can bring clarity to what we choose to bring into focus.

The need for focus

What we focus on determines experience, knowledge, energy and fulfilment. It can be easy to squander attention on just whatever captures your awareness. Which isn’t to say: don’t scan your environment for new or intriguing things! It is to say: for things that you know to be important – make sure these get your attention.

The In-Out Focus technique is a simple idea to provide structure, balanced with flexibility, so you know what is truly worth your focus, and are able to refocus easily as needed.

The technique described below started with a need for a strategy to overcome states of procrastination or feeling scattered. I’d ask myself: What should the focus of Today be? What are 1 or 2 most important things to achieve? I’d write this on a sticky note and put it in my direct field of vision. Then I focus my attention on that, and give myself permission to ignore other things for the defined time period.

What determines ‘important’? I define it as things that will assist and advance my current situation to my preferred future. It can be as simple as making a phone call to enhance a relationship, or making a decision about whether to go to an event.

The technique has further evolved to a long-term view, i.e. What is most important for This Week, Month, Quarter or Year? And also evolved for use with a team, not just an individual: With a declared team foci of attention, individuals can better align their personal focus.

Using the technique

  • You can change focus anytime you want, but something must move out of focus. Don’t add unless you subtract, to maintain quality attention.
  • The granularity of the important items will differ depending on the focus horizon, i.e. Day, Week, Year, or Life. Don’t mix the granularity; rather have different Focus Lists or Circles for different horizons.
  • Focus on the right things (not senseless things). Is your attention consumption empty calories or nutrient rich? Eliminate what isn’t helpful. Cultivate attention-health.
  • Know what is most important even when the territory is shifting and emerging; there is always stuff that could be done – know what should be done.
  • Just because something is not IN focus doesn’t mean that it isn’t there or that it isn’t important. It’s simply not the current focus of attention.

Making it happen

1. On small sticky notes: write a project, group/organisation/committee, collaboration, interest that currently occupies your time and attention (present and future content). One per sticky note.

2. On large piece of paper (suggest A2 or A3 size), draw a large circle.

3. For ‘This Week’, what will be the focus of your attention?  Assign your notes to inside the circle. That is In-Focus. Anything left over remains outside the circle or Out-of-Focus.

Consider: If you organised for ‘This Month’ (instead of ‘This Week’), what items would you move?

4. Set a depth of field, i.e. Today, This Week, This Month, Year.  Set a number for the maximum items that can be in focus for the chosen depth of field, i.e. the breadth of attention you can simultaneously maintain, e.g. 2, 4, 10.

Expect to do some fine tuning to see what works best for you in terms of depth of field, and number of items in focus.

I no longer use the paper/sticky notes method in my everyday practice.  I use the digital Sticky Notes application for Daily/Weekly Focus lists which sit on my computer desktop. And I keep a page in my digital Notebook for longer-term Focus lists.

HINT: When you are starting out, I recommend using the paper/sticky notes method for at least a couple of months.

5. In your regular planning time, add an action item to Review and Adjust you In-Out Focus circles.  (In accordance with my Activity-Time budget, I have set aside weekly planning time.)

6. Live and work according to the Focus you have set.

Best wishes with implementing this technique.  Let us know what worked and didn’t work for you in your context.

Helen Palmer is Principal Consultant at RHX Group. She thinks critically about knowledge work, and how to ensure knowledge isn’t wasted. She revels in tackling the big processes of change and learning so that ideas become impact. With her colleagues at RHX Group, Helen helps teams make better use of their people, knowledge and information.


4 thoughts on “Focusing attention with In-Out Focus Circle

  1. Another reflection on this in hindsight, Helen. To me, the in-out focus depends on what phase of my life I’m at – inspiration, contentment, denial or conflict/confusion (to use the psychological theory ‘Four Rooms of Change’ –

    1. Inspiration – 100s of ideas are coming to you. Everything is important and might lead to something. Don’t focus too much…
    2. Contentment – look at the ideas that can make you thrive and focus on them.
    3. Denial – What you’re currently doing is no longer working. You need to expand your horizons again.
    4. Conflict/confusion – Focus on yourself and your unconscious. Leave all externalities out. Let go of unnecessary stuff. Eventually your direction will emerge and be clear and you’re back in the inspiration room.

    • Thanks for your reflections, Adam.
      Yes, there are times when you might not apply the filters at all and allow anything from the flows of your life, to come through for consideration.
      When you need to stem the flow and get focused again, the filter technique can be reapplied with fresh insight and may be a very different set of filters.
      With using the Filters, there is a risk that you’re creating your own ‘filter bubble’. So it’s important to re-tune the filters, either by setting new values or turning them off. The job of the filters is to reduce distractions where they are inhibiting you from doing your best work, or are causing you stress from dealing with too many ‘voices’.

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