by Terry McArdle, senior consultant, McArdle Ramerman & Co.

Unless there’s a medical reason for it, focus–giving our attention to a single thing–can be a choice and a tool.

Focus can be either fixed or shifting. Our sense of awareness and personal priorities rises and falls throughout the day; we find ourselves lost in deep attention to something that fascinates us or drives us. Then we’re off, our minds jack rabbiting in unexpected directions, hauling us along for the ride whether we like it or not.

I submit that, within limits, we can enjoy that ride very much.

Photographers working with equipment more sophisticated than cell phones and “point and shoot” cameras use “depth of field“–a range of sharpness in a picture– to shift the viewer’s attention from a central object to its surroundings. Great photographers use depth of field to make a design statement, frame a scene or tell a story in a flash. Sometimes a central object can be lost in the sameness of a wide focal plane, allowing for a broader perspective. At other times, a narrow focus makes one object deeply compelling.

Deliberate focus is useful. It’s how we concentrate; we need it to listen. We can focus on the divergent, taking in the differences around us; we can focus on the convergent, and become aware of what those things around us have in common. Without deliberate focus, connecting in a conversation and remaining open to learning is impossible.

Focus can be paradoxical. Meditation, once considered exotic, is now a critical tool for a significant number of western business people. They’ve come to realize that meditation can leave us deeply receptive, not yet focused, open to a greater awareness of what’s going on around us and within us. It allows a deep connection without seeming to connect at all.

If meditation is something you have not yet tried, consider a book such as the classic “Relaxation Response” by Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson. This simple, comfortable and un-exotic technique can help you arrive at an alert mind in a relaxed body.

Focus can be a bucking bronco, unsettling as we strive to keep it on a path. Setting personal objectives and then planning each day, even in broadest terms, can help.

More important than planning, however, is execution. A quote attributed to Emily Dickinson (though probably apocryphal) says, “If I cannot complete half of my plans for the day by 10 a. m., I will never accomplish the second half.” Emily was clearly a planner. She has the poetry to prove it.

On a larger scale, organizational goals are a great context for making decisions about where to focus at work. If we know our organization’s strategic goals, and can set our own objectives in alignment with them, deciding where to put our attention can be significantly simplified.

Critical as setting objectives, planning and executing can be, it all has to start somewhere. Our plans need a point; they need context. Daily reflection is a great way to take stock, making sure that our values and our lives are in alignment. Each of us owes it to ourselves to take a breath, pause, and try to get a little perspective.

As Socrates pointed out, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It might not be a bad idea to focus on that for a minute or two.

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The content shared is the author’s opinion and does not necessarily reflect the views of Xerox.  #FocusFriday is a weekly conversation helping people with productivity in the office.  Posts can be at the same time fun and serious, in the spirit of the Xerox’s Business of Your Brain app, yet always focused on what matters most, Real Business.