When I was a young composer, I had many good musicians play my music. Then I got a commission from Collage, a contemporary music group made up of Boston Symphony musicians. When I went to the first rehearsal of my piece, the one thing I noticed immediately, the one thing that separated these great Boston Symphony musicians from the other good musicians I had worked with, was their extraordinary focus. They were focused every moment of the 12-minute piece with an intensity I hadn’t seen before at any first rehearsal. And their focus was always there, throughout every performance.
Music training, as in sports, as in many other disciplines, demands a high level of focus. Most of us are not required to develop a high level of focus, so our minds can float from one thing to another, free association, not able to focus enough when it is needed.
Just what is focus? It is paying attention. It is the ABILITY to pay attention. It is like a camera lens when it reaches that place of optimal focus.
Years ago I worked with US Biathlon Team thanks to my friend an colleague John Donovan, a structural consultant and accomplished athlete. This is the sport where first, they cross-country ski, and then, they come into a target area where they have to shoot a rife aimed at a target. It’s a tough sport because skiing and target shooting requires different physical conditions. And the one thing I noticed about these great Olympic athletes was their tremendous focus.
This level of focus develops over time. It is not something one either has or doesn’t. When people say, “I can’t focus for very long. That’s just how I am,” they are only describing their current level of ability, not something they can’t develop.
So why develop focus? Two reasons: it’s easy and it helps your creative process. Your level of concentration can grow. Your ability to focus on structural tension, the desired state in relationship to the current reality, can grow. Your ability to maintain momentum while you are engaged in the action steps you take to create the outcomes you want can grow. Your ability to hold and work with structural tension over extended periods of time, weeks, months, years, can grow.
Focus, as I have said, takes practice. The more you are able to focus, the better. It is accumulative. My focus now is so much better than when I was in my 20s and 30s.
When I began to write year ago, I needed silence in the house. Now I can write in taxicabs and in noisy airports. My ability to focus developed over time and practice. So can yours.As Steve Jobs said, “That’s been one of my mantras, focus and simplicity.”
With all of the stimulus in our world, it is easy to get distracted and lose focus. There are problem types of distractions: there are competing desires distractions: there are running out of steam types of distractions. So here is a principle: focus your creative process based on aspirations and values, while tracking overall shapes and patterns, and that is the best focus to have. This will lead to generating strength, insight, processes, strategies, and, most importantly, the energy needed to take the critical actions that can lead to the successful accomplishment of your creations.
And of course, how do you focus when you’ve got a lot of things you are doing? To show how this is done, sometimes when I’m doing talks, I’ll get 4 or 5 people up on stage, and put them in a row, shoulder to shoulder. Each person represents a project that I might be creating. I push one person forward for a moment. And then I push another one forward. And then another. What I tell the audience is this: When I am focused on one project, I am there 100%. I move the project forward. Then I focus on another project I’m creating. I give that one 100% focus. When I move from project to project, it’s like switching the channel. While I am working on that project, I’m not thinking about the others.
This is how busy and effective people do it. They can handle many things by being able to be 100% focused on each one at a time. And then, they know how to change the channel when the time comes to switch focus.