Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Focus, Concentrate, Pay Attention

Iris says, "Focus. Concentrate. Pay attention!"

I say, "What?"

Iris says, "I said, 'Focus. Concentrate. Pay attention!'"

"Why'd you say that?"

"It's what Quinn was saying the other day."

"Was he saying it to you or himself?"

"I think he was saying it to both of us. Sometimes he'd stretch it out."

"What do you mean?"

"For example, he'd say, 'Focus. Focus. Focus. No-no-no. Concentrate. Yes. Con-cen-trate... And pay attention."

"Uh. Where did he get that from?"

"From Lynn, I think."

"Focus. Concentrate. Pay attention?"


"So did you?"

"Did I what?"

"Focus, concentrate and pay attention?"

"We both did, for two hours straight."

Focus, concentrate, pay attention. As Iris proclaimed the words using a serious Quinn-like tone, my shoulders tightened and my stomach clenched. I heard accusation. It's funny that I would hear her words that way, me being all about focus, concentration and paying attention. I don't think I've heard them said that way since my dad tried to help me with algebra homework in eighth grade. His version was usually accompanied with phrases like, "this is easy; you're just not trying", and "you just never pay attention."

Alright, my saying that I responded to what Iris said today based on something that occurred decades isn't quite right. The stage may have been set decades ago, but my reaction was based in the moment. So why respond so viscerally?

Hmm... First thought: judgement.  I must have some judgements I hold about the importance of focus, concentration and paying attention and my ability (or inability) to do so.

Wait! I do have judgements about all that.

Ahhh.... I get it. Lately I've had so much going on that I'm constantly shifting focus from one activity to the next. This is no problem generally speaking. However, there are some activities that take a while for me to engage, in particular, working on large systems.

Large systems work can be challenging because, in order to make even a small change, you have to be aware of the implications to the overall system. It's like the butterfly-effect in chaos theory, except that you're not allowed to blame chaos; you have know exactly what the butterfly flapping its wings will lead to.

Not knowing this is the reason that companies like Apple and Microsoft have to release so many updates to their systems. At some point, large companies lose control of their software code bases. The people who designed and developed the systems move on and are replaced by others who understand some, but not all of the system. The replacements make changes. Sometimes they know all the potential side-effects; sometimes not. The replacements get replaced by others who understand even less. Over time, the number of anticipated side-effects divided by the number of potential side-effects approaches zero, i.e., it becomes hit-or-miss.

Most companies respond to this phenomenon (losing control of their code bases), by increasing the amount of testing they perform rather than learning the system so well that they regain an understanding of all the side-effects. The ratio of testers to developers can easily reach ten-to-one.  Since I work by myself, that's not an option. So instead, I always make sure that I reacquaint myself with my systems before I make changes.

The good news is that when I'm working on a system, I can see the entire thing stretched out before my mind's eye. It's like hearing the entire score while working on the second violin part. The bad news is that, if it's been a while since I worked on a system, it can take me a while to get reacquainted with it.  So, even a small change can take a disproportionate amount of time.

The net is that it can take me a while to focus on, concentrate on and pay attention to the immediate challenge, because it takes so long to rebuild the setting in my mind. That's been happening a lot lately and I guess I've been judging myself for it.

So seeing that, what do I want to do?

Hmm... I think I'll stop for a self-congratulatory moment. OK, rather than thinking about myself as a slow sports-car that takes a long time to get up to speed, I'm going to see myself as a high-powered locomotive that takes a while to get up to speed, but then becomes unstoppable.  Yeah, that's me, an unstoppable freight train comin-atcha.

Focus. Concentrate. Pay attention. 
Strike that.

Take time for a self-congratulatory moment.

Happy Wednesday,

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