Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Cone of Focus

I was going to write something about nutrition and how it affects abilities and concentration, but then I came up with this analogy and decided I had to write about it, today.  I might be more excited about it than I should be, but I’ll let you decide whether that's the case.

Currently I’m working on writing a much longer piece that dwells on focus.  Its current working title is “The Focused Gamer,” and it will tackle issues of concentration, being in the zone, and some of those peculiar challenges as they apply to gaming.

While writing it though, a certain image continued to appear in my head, which is the notion of one’s focus as a cone.  Hence the title of this post, the Cone of Focus.  I don’t think it’s exactly a perfect model, but it’s surprisingly apt.  It’s a bit hard to describe without pictures (and I’d rather not blind you with my dubious touch-pad MSPaint abilities), but I’ll do my best to help you visualize it.

Please imagine yourself as a dot, with a cone emanating from you. The cone represents the scope of your attention at a given moment, and the cone has a fixed area.  That means that if you widen the cone, it does not reach nearly as far; this is like when you are doing a very menial chore, thinking about what you’ll cook for breakfast, listening to music, and scratching an itch at the same time.  Lots of low-engagement tasks will fit into the cone, and they will be completed in reasonable amounts of time, reasonably well.

But pretend that for difficult tasks, the object of your focus is far away.  You can’t use a wide cone; since the cone has a fixed area, it won’t be able to reach the object.  So you have to narrow the cone in order to lengthen it.  This is another way of saying that if something is very demanding on your mind, you won’t be able to include other things in the cone while focusing on it.  Likewise, if you don’t narrow the cone enough, you can’t stretch the cone far enough to reach it. So you won't actually concentrate on the object enough to achieve your goals.

You can even think of it as a game, with two primary objectives: 1) Keep the cone centered on priority objects, and 2) alter the cone’s area so it can reach its priority objects.

So if you want, imagine a big field of objects with you at the center.

--They vary in size and importance, and they are all different distances away from you.
--You want to clear away the objects before they expire (like finishing a paper with a deadline, or remembering to eat before you die of starvation).
--Your cone of focus can be wide and shallow, to accommodate lots of low level tasks, or it can be far-reaching yet narrow, to focus on a single high-level task.
--If your cone does not land within a certain range of a task, it won’t get completed at all, or it will take a long time, or you will just do things badly. It would be like trying to devote all your attention to a low-level task that doesn’t need it and becoming frustrated at the lack of stimulation, or trying to perform heart surgery while daydreaming about what you will eat for lunch.

Your ability to control the shape of the cone, your ability to pick objects, and your ability to swing the focus where it needs to go, these represent skills of focus, willpower, prioritization, and time-management (in no particular order).  So you need to decide which tasks need doing, in what order, and how much focus it will require to do them properly. The more skilled you are at manipulating the cone, the more things you can do well.

What happens if you have two important tasks and you aren’t able to complete them simultaneously?  What if those objects require lots of focus, but they are in completely different directions?  You have to prioritize, and you may have to sacrifice one for the other.  Or you have to quickly decide which one can be completed first and more efficiently so you can quickly swing to the other.  And if you overload yourself with too many tasks that need completing simultaneously, then some will simply have to fall by the wayside.

I think it’s a surprisingly good way to describe how we navigate our tasks and responsibilities.  We try to take care of things before it’s too late, we try to give them the appropriate focus they deserve.  Too much energy devoted to a boring task becomes frustrating, but not devoting enough energy to a high level task causes you to fail or make no progress.

The analogy does have one key weakness, which is the principle of automation.  There are many tasks which, though necessary, don’t really require focus at all, and can even be done while focusing on something extremely difficult.  With training and practice you can simply avoid the need for focusing on certain things altogether, and I have a tough time imagining how that can fit into this model.  Even accounting for that though, I find the visualization fairly apt.  Even more importantly, you could probably make a fun flash game out of it if you wanted.

I hope this notion proved as interesting to you as it did to me.  Thanks for reading.

1 comment:

  1. I think this provides a wonderful basis for understanding where you are investing your attention. What does my cone look like right now? Are there any tasks coming up that I might miss? Is my cone the optimal size for what I'm focusing on?

    And then if you take the analogy a little further you realize that your cone grows and shrinks based on your mental/physical well-being. Which leads to questions like: Why is my cone smaller/larger today? Diet? Exercise? Emotional reasons?

    Really great read, as always