Maintaining Focus

Before smartphones, people took photos using cameras. I bought my first “nice” camera — an entry-level Canon SLR — before my first daughter was born; I got it because I knew my point-and-shoot camera didn’t have a fast enough focusing system to keep track of a fast-moving toddler. Even today — with excellent cameras in our phones — higher-end cameras provide better focusing features.

You can analyze a camera’s focusing capabilities by breaking them down into two stages:

  1. how fast the camera can recognize the subject and how quickly it can focus on it, and
  2. how well it maintains that focus as the subject moves around.

So: acquiring and maintaining focus. Most higher-end cameras today can figure out what you’re trying to capture, focus on it, and adjust the lens’s focus automatically to keep that subject sharp — even if it’s zooming toward you in a soccer field or making pirouettes through the air. The nice ones do it so quickly that it feels instantaneous and effortless. But this isn’t easy to do! These autofocus systems are technological miracles.

I often think about camera focusing systems when thinking about my own life and work. So many things are competing for my attention! What comes first? What’s most important? What should I work on next? In other words, where do I place my focus?

As with the camera, the first and most critical step is figuring out what I plan to “shoot.” Should I dive into AI? What about all the interesting stuff happening in health care? What about financial services, where I have so much experience? Should I be working on my presenting or writing skills instead? What about all I need to learn about managing and growing a consulting practice?

I point my “camera” at the world and make decisions about what’s inside and outside of the frame. The focusing system will only work on the stuff that’s inside the frame. Once I know what I’m going to focus on, I make the conscious effort to get it as clear as possible. In modern cameras, this usually involves a half-press of the shutter button. In work, I consciously set aside time to think about the various things I’m interested in and make choices. I prioritize, think about pros and cons, think about the people I know who could help, etc. I see these practices as analogous to the autofocus algorithms that select the subject within the camera’s frame.

But of course, it doesn’t end there. Conditions change, contexts evolve. The subject may have moved and become blurry, or perhaps something more interesting entered the frame. (In that sense, these practices are closer to videography than photography: there is no one “still” coming out of this process, but an emergent career.)

How do you maintain focus as new things come into view? By making re-establishing focus a constant practice. If you don’t take time out once in a while to adjust focus, you may miss the Most Important Thing. As with fancy cameras, the faster and more frequently you can do this, the better. (As long as it doesn’t crowd out doing the work itself. The purpose of cameras is not focusing; it’s producing great pictures and video.)