The Modern Software Developer Newsletter
Wellbeing & Performance
Issue 6 – Misunderstanding Focus
Software Developers and Focus
In last month’s issue, we looked at pair programming:
👉 What is it?
👉 What are the benefits?
👉 How do you do it?
👉 When it works and when it doesn’t…
You can catch that issue here.
In this issue, we explore the importance of FOCUS, how it’s more than just concentrating on the task at hand and how it plays a role in our approach to many different situations within software development.
During my long (illustrious 😂) career in software development, I’ve often heard the word “focus” brandished around all over the place…
“I just can’t focus…”
“I just need to focus on this…”
“If we are going to hit our deadline, we all just need to focus…”
Not once have I ever heard anyone explain what focus is, how you actually do it or why it’s important.
What is Focus?
For the purposes of this article, I’ll define focus as:
Most people only think about this in the moment or concerning the current task at hand, but there is a far broader scope for focus to impact who you are and what you do.
Focus forms an integral part of your mindset and makes up part of your identity as a person and as a developer.
To understand how it works and why it’s so important, it’s useful to look at the role focus plays in our brain and how it integrates with our thinking.
It’s worth pointing out here that we have thoughts every second of every day. Many of these thoughts will jump into your head spontaneously and often seem to be about random things.
A great number of these thoughts can be surfaced by your subconscious mind, meaning that you didn’t consciously decide to think that thought.
A comparatively small number of thoughts will be thoughts that you consciously choose to think.
It’s at this point we either choose to focus on a thought, or we let it go.
Only by giving our attention to a thought, do we give it our focus and allow our mind to spark other related thoughts.
Your subconscious mind
Most of your thoughts come from your subconscious mind and it feels like we have little control over which thoughts are thrown at us…
But you can influence those thoughts more than you might realise.
Your subconscious produces thoughts based on what it has been exposed to over the years, or how it has been programmed, if you will and has formed a mental map of the world.
In other words, the world according to YOU.
Your mental map has been influenced by the following:
👉 Your beliefs.
👉 Your past experiences.
👉 Your awareness of yourself and the world around you.
👉 Your values.
👉 Your attitude, and more…
More often than not, your subconscious will produce thoughts that prove you “right” based on YOUR mental map of the world.
Depending on how your subconscious has been programmed over the years, this could be helpful to you, or it could be very unhelpful based on how the subconscious mind functions.
What’s important to recognise here is that up until now, you’ve been programming your subconscious mind without being intentional about it.
With awareness and repetition, you can intentionally programme your mind to focus how you want to, more of the time.
How your mind functions
The way your subconscious mind functions can, without you realising it, work against you.
The subconscious mind is teleological by nature – this means it’s very directional and locks onto your focus. It then gears its efforts into moving you towards that focus, regardless of whether it is helpful or unhelpful to you.
This is why consciously focusing on what is helpful is so important.
The subconscious mind is unquestioning and unfiltered – this means that you get out what you put in.
If you fill it with negative, unhelpful thoughts, that is exactly what you’ll get back from it
If you constantly think negative, unhelpful thoughts, your subconscious mind will eventually make this your autopilot without validating how helpful or unhelpful it is to you and will favour surfacing these thoughts for you to focus on over positive thoughts.
With the right programming, you can flip this on its head.
When you lack focus
With all these seemly random thoughts flying into and out of your mind, it’s easy to see how you can lose focus (if you ever had it) and become distracted.
Especially in software development, there are so many things to be distracted by:
👉 Project deadlines.
👉 New languages and frameworks.
👉 Toxic relationships.
👉 Context switching.
👉 Social media.
When you lack focus, it can cause you to feel anxious and stressed, like you’re juggling with too many balls and might drop one at any moment.
A lack of focus can also sap your energy and stop you from thinking straight, as you’ve always got one eye on something else…
Ultimately, a lack of focus can negatively impact your wellbeing and your performance as a software developer.
When you misplace your focus
Even worse than not being focused is misplacing your focus.
By misplaced focus, I’m referring to simply focusing on the wrong things.
To be clear, I’m not going to tell you that you’re focusing on the wrong things; you can work that out yourself by asking:
👉 Is what I’m focused on helpful to me and moving me in the direction I want to go?
👉 Is what I’m focused on unhelpful to me and holding me back?
*Taking into account what we’ve just said about your subconscious mind, it’s a really good idea to seek a perspective other than your own when answering these questions.
When you misplace your focus, you can find yourself in situations and circumstances that you don’t want to be in more often than not and even find yourself surrounded by people that bring you down and sap your energy.
With all that said, how do you focus if you want to move in the direction you want to go and drive towards the outcomes you want to achieve?
How should you focus?
It’s not always optimal to be zoomed all the way in on your current task or situation.
It’s a good idea to adjust the scope of your focus and zoom out from time to time.
You can consider your focus at multiple levels:
👉 The week ahead.
👉 The day.
👉 The afternoon.
👉 The next meeting.
👉 The task at hand.
By adjusting the scope of your focus, you can consider how you want to approach specific situations ahead of time to ensure you’re heading in the direction of the outcome you want.
And because you know the direction you’re heading, you’re better equipped to put plans in place to avoid those things that distract you or cause you to misplace your focus.
For example, you can plan to make a concerted effort to approach a meeting with a positive outlook rather than just look for and point out the negative to everyone.
Three main ways to focus
In any given situation, there are three main ways to focus.
Some people approach situations and problems by focusing on FAILING…
👉 We’ll never hit that deadline…
👉 This commit is going to break the build…
👉 I’m always late…
This has your brain focusing on the very thing you want to avoid.
The majority of people approach situations and problems by focusing on NOT FAILING…
👉 We must NOT miss this deadline…
👉 I must NOT break the build with my next commit…
👉 I must NOT be late…
Although this sounds very different from the first way of focusing, it’s actually exactly the same; the very thing you want to avoid becomes the focus of your attention.
The most successful people approach situations and problems by focusing on SUCCESS; they focus on the outcome they want.
👉 What can we do to hit this deadline…
👉 My code will be more robust and readable with my next commit…
👉 I’m going to give myself extra time to get there…
Focusing on the outcome you want uses the way your mind naturally functions (teleologically) to move you towards it by surfacing ideas and thoughts linked to achieving that outcome.
An example: tight deadlines
As a software developer, working to tight deadlines can be tough, especially when you don’t get input on when that deadline should be.
It’s easy to misplace your focus on how unachievable that deadline might be.
Especially when you are privy to the detail of the work that needs to be done to achieve it.
It can be even worse when the detail of what needs to be done hasn’t been fleshed out yet either… I’ve found myself in this situation very recently!
As we’ve discussed, focusing on how unachievable the deadline is, causes anxiety and stress, and reduces motivation and morale…
You spend more time thinking and worrying about what can’t be done and the potential consequences.
My advice, focus on what can be done, define what can be done, work on what can be done.
Ultimately, the deadline will pass. The deadline will be met to someone’s satisfaction, or it won’t…
You just need to be satisfied that you did what you could without sacrificing your wellbeing.
Focus on the outcome you want and let your brain do what it naturally does to take you there.
It’s not selfish to put yourself first; there’s nothing more important than your own wellbeing!
Please share with your network if you found this useful.
Until next time…
Keep up to date!
- Issue 7 – Taking responsibility: From personal growth to professional success
- Issue 6 – Misunderstanding Focus
- Issue 5 – Pair Programming is more about people than coding
- Issue 4 – Developers: you might regret not getting enough Sleep
- Issue 3 – Are your Beliefs holding you back?
- Issue 2 – Hydration can really make a difference
- Issue 1 – Self-Awareness is a superpower