About focus

About focus

There are three conceptual combinations of temporality, significance and impact which require our attention: urgency (I either deal with it now or not at all), importance (I can deal with it later, but I can’t afford to ignore it) and opportunity (I may safely ignore it, but there are significant benefits if I don’t). While thinking about these obvious types of “importance”, it occurred to me that they must live in a higher-dimensional space which possibly contains more of the kind as combinations of the dimension values. Starting with these examples (urgent, important, opportunistic), I mapped them on the three dimensions of temporality (when is something happening?), significance (how much do I, subjectively, care?) and impact (what happens to the world if I do/don’t deal with it?).

Temporality means when the situation impacts me (not when the focus happens). There is a strong connection between the time of focus on a situation and the time its impact materialises: the sooner the impact registers, the less time there is to reason about it. The more time I spend dealing with “soon” matters, the less time I have left to deal with “later” matters before they become “soon” matters.

Significance is the subjective importance of the effect to me. This should be related only to the impact’s severity, but other factors might play a role, e.g. my inclination towards dealing with the topic, my workload, motivation etc.

There is always a physical impact of my attention towards something, be it as miniscule as a chemical reaction in the brain (e.g. I learned something) or as enormous as my project losing funds.

So I came up with the following classification of focus in the time-significance-impact space:

Ordered by significance

Focus Significance Time Impact
Irrelevance Low Soon Low
Carelessness Low Soon High
Obscurity Low Later Low
Underestimation Low Later High
Distraction High Soon Low
Urgency High Soon High
Opportunity High Later Low
Important High Later High

Ordered by impact

Focus Significance Time Impact
Irrelevance Low Soon Low
Obscurity Low Later Low
Distraction High Soon Low
Opportunity High Later Low
Carelessness Low Soon High
Underestimation Low Later High
Urgency High Soon High
Important High Later High

Irrelevant things happen all the time around us and we are used to ignoring them: cars honking in rush hour, INFO logs in software, the daily weather forecast for a town far away. They happen in great quantities and have low-to-no impact on us. We have evolved as a species to deal with them mostly through instinct. If something goes suddenly wrong and requires our immediate attention, our instinct will trigger a reflex to deal with it.

I struggled with finding a good name for what I’m calling now obscurity: unimportant things in the distant future. I feel that irrelevance (discussed earlier) is closely related to obscurity for its quality. I’m visualising irrelevant things as a swarm of tiny hovering bugs and obscurity as a distant fog; one is more granular, the other is smoother, but they both fail to capture our interest for lack of contour and contrast.

A distraction is a peripheral event getting too much attention; distractions are counter-productive and attention should be diverted away from them.

An opportunity arises whenever we recognise potential value in a seemingly irrelevant situation, e.g. piggy-backing a technical refactoring on a large feature request.

I will have been careless if an irrelevant issue would have slipped under my radar and inflated to something annoying or dangerous (respectively lucky if it turns out to be something pleasant).

Urgent matters require no introduction; they need to be dealt with soon for their imminent impact.

I have underestimated something if had a big impact, I had plenty of time to deal with it, but I didn’t for lack of appreciating its importance. Underestimated things tend to become urgent (at best) or return to haunt us from the grave when they have been carelessly neglected even after becoming urgent.

Last, but not least, important topics have it all: the attention, the impact and the depth of a certain time line.

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