The Focus Tool: Attend, Avoid, Access

If you are feel­ing dis­tract­ed and like you need to get focused, you need the right tool to help your brain work bet­ter. You need to rewire your brain back to how it is sup­posed to work.

By default, our brains don’t func­tion in the most use­ful way pos­si­ble. We fall into old pat­terns, begin wor­ry­ing, and fear sets in. If you’ve ever talked your­self out of doing your work, you know this is true...

The focus tool works like this:

  1. Attend — you attend to, or focus your atten­tion on some­thing super spe­cif­ic
  2. Avoid — you delib­er­ate­ly avoid doing oth­er things
  3. Access — you access the rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion to make progress

1. Attend to a specific result

Atten­tion and atten­dance are close­ly relat­ed. Attend­ing is about show­ing up. What­ev­er it is that you are try­ing to do or accom­plish, you must attend to what that is. In oth­er words, you have to go to that place in your brain. It is easy for us to attend to the WRONG things and be dri­ven by what is in front of our face or what is both­er­ing us. But if we want to accom­plish our big goals, we have to go to that space.

2. Avoid distractions

To keep our atten­tion fixed, we must active­ly avoid infor­ma­tion and activ­i­ties that are not rel­e­vant to the goal. In oth­er words, we must make a deci­sion to say “no” to inter­rup­tions and oth­er “emer­gen­cies” that show up. If you don’t decide ahead of time to active­ly avoid any­thing that’s not direct­ly relat­ed to the result we are work­ing on, we will get caught up in what­ev­er some­one else is decid­ing is impor­tant.

On the prac­ti­cal side, this means clos­ing your email appli­ca­tion and not check­ing it for hours. It means leav­ing your phone in a dif­fer­ent room with the ringer OFF. It means iso­lat­ing your­self from activ­i­ties and con­ver­sa­tions that will pull you off track.

3. Access key info

The third part is to access the rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion to make progress. In front of your face or at the top of your mind, you must remem­ber or access what is going to help you keep going.

Some of us work well with a dead­line to moti­vate us. “Access” in this con­text looks like keep­ing that dead­line front and cen­ter while we work on the project.

Some us work well with some kind of visu­al prompt. “Access” in this con­text looks like hav­ing a real pic­ture of what you’re try­ing to cre­ate in front of you while you work.

Brain science: executive functions aren’t default

This is my take on how psy­chol­o­gists and neu­ro­sci­en­tists talk about how the brain works. Hen­ry Cloud uses the terms attend, inhib­it, remem­ber to describe the same thing. The key is to remem­ber that our brains nat­u­ral­ly devi­ate to a “fear” mind­set where we are not oper­at­ing at our best.