Focus is a noun most frequently used in a positive context. As is often the way there are a host of idioms exalting such a state of mind: being on the ball, getting in the zone, putting your nose to the grindstone, knuckling down.
Focus is an example of the ‘system two’ thinking that counterbalances our emotional, spur of the moment, rapid-response thought processes. A necessary part of the way our brains work. Perhaps it’s what separates the truly elite from the merely good – pure focus on being the best, a gaze undeviating from the prize, the goal, the dream.
Sometimes, however, focus can be detrimental too.
When I first stumbled upon FIRE, it was utterly engrossing. Not merely as a principle but also as a mode of living. Financial prudence? Generating free time by reducing (/eliminating) ‘normal’ work? Eschewing wastefulness and consumerism? It was a path inherently attractive to me. My focus narrowed to start the ball rolling. Investments meticulously set up. Spreadsheets lovingly crafted. Spending wholly reigned in.
Yet it didn’t slack off once I had set the wheels in motion. I found myself so consumed by obtaining a state of financial independence that I cut the amount I was spending right back to bare basics. As if I could achieve it that very year through my extreme frugality. Nothing else seemed to matter, I could only focus on the dream of being financially free.
All save and no spend makes Jack a dull boy. Life became a drab shade of grey. I had missed the point. I had gone too far. Scrimping and saving was undoubtedly doing my financial quantity some good, but to the (severe) detriment of my life’s quality. Some variety is, after all, the spice of life.
I can’t remember what broke the stranglehold of my FIRE-focus, but I managed to relax back into spending a bit more with obvious positive consequences. The curtains were drawn back and the sunshine of life returned. I’ve since maintained that happy medium, enjoying a satisfying progression to financial independence whilst maintaining a good quality of living.
There are times in life when bursts of focus are required, certainly so in the medical world. Tricky technical procedures, emergent scenarios and important decisions at 4am of a night shift all deserve a healthy dose of your attention. Once again, however, too much focus may be unhelpful. Task fixation may leave you perilously blinkered to other life-threatening processes occurring around you. Consumption of bandwidth by that one task, that one patient can be harmful to those who remain in the umbra of your cognitive spotlight.
My recent tango with an exam is another example of the negative consequences of a focus that is too unwavering. I’ve been all-consumed by passing said exam. Every waking moment spent either working towards it or feeling guilty for not doing so. Many sleeping moments equally preoccupied by dreams (/nightmares) revolving around jumping over this one hurdle. Everything else was thrust on the back burners. As my colleague put it: “you’re ready to sit the exam when you’re utterly miserable and hate your life“.
The outcome is as you might predict. Much like my descent into unadulterated FIRE-focus, life’s usual vibrancy took on a rather unexciting hue. Perhaps fortuitously the second national lockdown stripped some of the pleasures of life away anyway; I can’t blame my exam for sapping all the enjoyment away.
Even writing MedFI articles ceased. It wasn’t writer’s block, it was more akin to a writer’s apathy. How could I enjoy doing something not related to passing this test? It has led to the longest gap between posts in the year-long history of the blog. Not that I work to a schedule, but I enjoy the creativity and catharsis involved in the writing process and that has been lost for six weeks.
Stepping back, stepping forward
Focus can be both a force for positivity and a funnel to despair. To be without any focus, to be constantly inattentive, would lead to minimal productivity and perhaps too a lack of enjoyment. A focal point that is too small or too restricted may be equally dissatisfying. My lesson learned is to try to keep some perspective, to recognise when the blinkers are on and take them off on occasion to remember that a wider world exists. Easier said than done, I know.