How can I focus my ability to focus?
August 8, 2007 8:09 AM   Subscribe

How can I use my focus for good (either directing it towards something useful, or to maintain interest) ?

Every few months I find one "hobby" that I get intensely interested in, spending lots of time learning as much about it as possible, buying the equipment to do it, and spending my time obsessing about it. It a short period of time, I pick up an insane amount of information on a topic. Then, usually my interest wanes for a while, and I move on to the next one. From aquarium maintenance to building things with clay, it's been fun but it can be a bit frustrating.

Sometimes I come back to the hobbies (many have been based on interests I've had since childhood, but couldn't act on), but it takes time and usually goes through the same cycle mentioned above.

How can I direct my focus onto something that might help me advance it life (say, really learning programming or something that might be useful professionally).

In addition, how can I keep myself interested in one hobby, or a small handful of hobbies, instead of just picking up new ones constantly like a mental katamari?
posted by drezdn to Grab Bag (6 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Check out the book Getting Things Done by David Allen. You may find that absorbing yourself in the GTD ideas for a while might help you in controling your wandering focus. It did for me.

Well, that and Ritalin.
posted by slavlin at 8:37 AM on August 8, 2007

I'm like you, but I've learned to embrace it. I've accepted my lot as a dilettante. I'll spend my life dipping my toes into a zillion subjects, mastering just a few of them. It's fun once you realize that it's okay. Life is not school. You don't have to turn in your homework.

That said, do you just learn subjects or do you so PROJECTS. For instance, whenever I've tried to just learn a programming language, I've failed. I've succeeded when I've given myself a complex programming task. Right now, I'm trying to get a more gut-level understanding of Design Patterns. I've read about five books on the subject, and they were useful, but now I'm in the process of writing a series of programs, each one based around a different pattern. If I was planning to learn guitar, I'd practice chords of course, but I'd also plan to record a CD for my friends.

When I force myself to complete a real project, I pretty much always learn that I don't know the subject as-well-as I think I do.

Another thing you could try: teaching. Teach a subject to a friend of volunteer. I HAD to master programming when I started teaching it!
posted by grumblebee at 8:37 AM on August 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

There is A LOT of information not available on the web. You're doing the same thing I do, more or less, and the only way I could make peace with it was writing up what I found and putting it on the web to make it easier for other folks to jump in, and for me to remember and build off of. I get hits from about 50 countries and a large percentage are people just looking at the pictures. 10-20,000 hits a month, but what makes it worth it are the stories the raw log files tell. College students doing work on papers, homeless and battered women shelters having a lot at the silly UV pictures I've got up there, baseball fans looking at my crazy idea for Fenway, hits from Africa looking at one of my economics articles, etc. I can't say for sure it is helping anyone directly but maybe they're getting a laugh at least. It's nice.
posted by jwells at 8:41 AM on August 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

Putting it on the web is a great idea. Wayne's This and That is another such site (though it's too bad that one of his myriad interests isn't graphic design for the web).

A self-help book written to help folks come to terms with a brain that works like this is: Barbara Sher's Refuse to Choose. The book explores the cyclical nature of some interests and helps you make the most of them. It also addresses the frustration of feeling like your pursuits don't add up to anything meaningful.

One useful thing I learned from the book was to take every idea seriously: write it down in as much detail as possible, think of the next steps to accomplishing the idea, take it as far as you can, and file the idea in a notebook. When you take every idea seriously, it turns out that some ideas just want to be explored for a day or so and then filed, and others end up feeling more important. Once you give yourself permission to explore every idea, the strong ones worth focusing on really begin to distinguish themselves.

I felt for years that I was catching up on all the things I didn't get to do when I was a child -- I went to a tiny school with no art or music or sports, and my family wasn't able to take us places or give us lessons or send us to summer camp. So when I got to college I finally started trying out everything I had ever wanted to try, giving them all equal weight... I went through 4 majors and cross-registered for classes at three other colleges besides my own, took singing and sewing and interned. After college I did a post-grad year at an art college, then got a job in TV and took night classes in film, then worked in film and took night classes in writing. I've taken sports classes and language classes and I haven't even gotten around yet to learning how to dance and cook and juggle.

In my case, all of my unfettered exploration did lead me to discover the one important interest that anchors all the rest, so I don't feel like a dilettante. I am pursuing a career as an artist, and everything I've done in life either adds to the ideas I'm exploring conceptually, or helps me execute them physically. I assist other artists as a day-job and my past experience has been helpful -- I know a little bit about glue and fiber optics and aquariums and pop music and where to find things in Home Depot. I can always tell the difference now between an idea that is part of my art practice, and a for-fun idea that's just to tickle my own brain.

Another friend like me is a teacher, and her disparate interests have helped her to be an especially imaginative one. Another friend who has lots of interests is a documentary film editor.
posted by xo at 10:57 AM on August 8, 2007 [3 favorites]

> I can always tell the difference now between an idea that is part of my art practice, and a for-fun idea that's just to tickle my own brain.

Same here. The website literally helped me get a promotion, because this other stuff wasn't intruding into my thoughts during the work day. I work in a generalized R&D dept. at a college so some of it seemed related but now it's just "for work" and "for my website". I have a few major, very creative things in mind work wise but now that the line is developed so well, I know these are "OK". If I ever get to them is a different matter... :-)
posted by jwells at 11:45 AM on August 8, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the input. I picked up a copy of Refuse to Choose and it's amazing how much it describes me as a person. I've tried and enjoyed some of the exercises so far and they've been useful, it even advocates acceptance ala grumblebee, and keeping a journal similar to jwells suggestion.
posted by drezdn at 10:01 AM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

« Older Cell phone with great sound quality on AT&T?   |   I want to nuke the place from orbit and never look... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.