Life in general contains a lot of noise.1 That’s no less true for academic life.
All of the noise can make it hard to know where to put your focus. And if you do identify where you need to focus, it can be still harder to put your attention there and actually focus.
Focusing Is Like Balancing
To some extent, there’s no avoiding this challenge. Like balancing, focusing isn’t a one-and-done effort. Having focus in your work means focusing “the way our eyes focus; not by fixating on something but by constantly adjusting and adapting to the field of vision.”2
But optical focus happens naturally and without thinking about it. In academic life, there’s no such automatic process. So, the question becomes,
How do you put your focus where you need it to be among the ambiguities and often-conflicting demands of academic life?
Answering this question can be challenging in theory and sometimes more so in practice. But there’s a clear, 4-step process to help you grapple with it.
Four Steps to More Focus
The 4 steps to help you put your focus more where you need it emerge from the four quadrants of the “Eisenhower Matrix.”3
These quadrants, their characteristics and their appropriate responses are as follows:
Characteristics: Urgent, Important
Characteristics: Not Urgent, Important
|Not Important||Quadrant 3|
Characteristics: Urgent, Not Important
Characteristics: Not Urgent, Not Important
The 4 steps to put your focus more where you need it then begin with the response to Quadrant 4 and work clockwise through the responses for the remaining quadrants.4
It may seem counter-intuitive to begin improving your focus by starting with Quadrant 4. But the point is that the very existence of Quadrant 4 items drains focus away from what falls into the other quadrants.
So, by starting in Quadrant 4, you get the clearest gains as you eliminate the “focus leaches” that lie there. Then, as a snowball gets larger as it rolls downhill, you can focus more on each successive step in the process with ultimate goal of concentrating more fully on Quadrant 2 work—the important things that all too easily get swept aside by the urgent.
Focusing means adapting. Amid the swarming demands of academic life, it can feel disorienting as you look for where to even begin.
But there’s a 4-step process that you can work consistently over time with, for example, something like email (which I’ll discuss next week). And as you do so, you can gradually find yourself able to put more of your focus beyond the minutiae and on what actually matters.
For this framework, see especially Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, 25th anniversary ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 154–92; see also Michael S. Hyatt, Free to Focus: A Total Productivity System to Achieve More by Doing Less (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), 91–158; McKeown, Essentialism, 215–24. ↩
This way of using the Eisenhower Matrix then becomes essentially identical to the alternative “focus funnel” metaphor developed by Rory Vaden, Procrastinate on Purpose: 5 Permissions to Multiply Your Time (New York: Perigee, 2015). ↩