How to Focus and Make Connections

[tweetmeme]Yesterday we had a seminar titled “How to Focus and Win”, given by The Twins: EnvironMENTAL Training. I found this event very interesting for two reasons.

The first is my personal frustration with the struggle to stay focused when working on something that I find boring and tedious. This inability to get my brain to cooperate and focus when doing boring tasks can mean that those tasks get left until the last minute when fear of missing the deadline forces my brain into action – A method I applied with varying degrees of success in my student days when doing revision. Even more frustratingly, I have colleagues who seem to have endless control over their focus and are able to stay focused regardless of how repetitive and dull the task is. So why can’t I do it?

Well, according to Chuka & Dubem Okonkwo, who gave the seminar, focus is something that can be trained. They showed us a selection of techniques that they use to help their clients train their brain to stay focused when doing boring tasks. They gave us some simple (though not easy!) games to do. E.g. counting in two ways at the same time, both counting down from 1000 and up from 1. (1000, 1, 999, 2, 998, 3 and so on. Try it, it’s not as easy as it may seem). The idea is that by commanding your brain to perform and focus on boring tasks – you train it so that you can stay focused whenever you need to. You also learn to find your own motivation and be able to make the most of boring tasks.

Chuka and Dubem also had us work through some visualisation exercises. Which leads me to my second point: being aware of and registering your surroundings and the impact this has on creativity.

“When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.Steve Jobs

I agree in particular with the last (underlined) point here, and this as well is something that can be trained. The exercises we did were all designed to demonstrate how easily we can recall and visualize what we already know, but they were also alluding to how much information we miss. Think about your walk home from the station or bus stop, you walk it everyday, but could you direct someone to take the same route when you’re waiting for them at home? What shops will they pass? Any land marks? Traffic lights? What if I asked you to draw your mobile phone, without looking at it, just from memory? Now compare this to your mobile. What’s different? Do you now see something you hadn’t registered before? The more detail you remember the richer your experience is.

The mobile is a good example of something you use everyday, so in theory you should be able to draw it in rich detail. But it can be harder than it sounds. We mostly don’t pay attention to the details. By training your brain to look at something and then later visualize the details, you should not only improve your ability to remember details, but also your ability to make connections.

What do you think? Have you tried something like this before? Did it work for you?

Author: Kristine Pitts


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Centre for Creativity in Professional Practice

The Centre for Creativity in Professional Practice is an interdisciplinary research centre in the Cass Business School, City University London.

2 thoughts on “How to Focus and Make Connections”

  1. We have a natural tendency to only scan only a very small percentage of our environment at any given time and rely on our existing patterns to complete the rest of the picture. While this an an extremely efficient way to go about things we do miss things that are not in accordance with our existing patterns.

    When working with groups one of the ways to address this tendency, I like to use the Direct Attention Thinking Tools developed by de Bono. These are helpful as they help to get participants to direct their attention to specific areas and scan more widely than they normally would. With the wider scan the subject matter is more likely to be perceived in a new or different manner.

    As an example if we asked someone to look at their mobile phone and then hide it and describe it to us, they often only describe so much. If instead we asked them to sequentially describe the top, front, back, sides, etc a more detailed and better description tends to emerge.

  2. Hi Frank,

    Thanks for your comment. I’ve not used Direct Attention Thinking Tools(DATT) explicitly in the workshops I run, but use some of the same concepts. If people are interested they can find out more about DATT by going to

    A key thing I always encourage is two way listening. Listen to what’s being said, but also listen to what you’re thinking about what’s being said, and then writing down both. This allows you to stay in the moment, and gives a reminder of ideas, thoughts and information that you can come back to later.

    I agree with you that asking people to sequentially describe smaller parts of the mobile can enable more detailed descriptions. In systems design we often work from the basis that people are better at recognising errors of commission rather than omission, by which we mean that asking someone to describe something can be hard, but if you show them an image of it (or a prototype) they can usually tell you exactly what’s right or not about it (to some extent anyway.)


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