Illustration by Justin Tran

Work Culture

A personal journey to understanding focus


Published on February 18, 2021

I have to admit that during the process of writing this post, there were times when it was hard to focus.

Sometimes it was because of notifications, pings, and emails and other times I found my mind wandering to the major news events that were happening around the world. And even though it’s been nearly a year since Dropbox transitioned to remote work for its employees, I’m still trying to find ways to decrease those distractions and increase the amount of focused time for my work.

Last year, our team sponsored a research study conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) about productivity and focus. One of the findings was that more than 41% of survey respondents who were part of the baby boomer generation (born 1946-1964) strongly agreed with the statement that “maintaining focus at work is more the responsibility of the individual than of any external factor,” while only 27% of Gen Z/millennial respondents (born 1981-2002), myself included, felt the same way. Gen X (born 1965-1980) respondents fell in between at 39%. This made me wonder whether focus is really correlated with the generation in which we grew up in, and if so, why?

To find out, my colleague and I talked to people we knew in each of the three generations. What I learned was that while the correlation may be valid, there are also other social and cultural influences that nuance an individual’s understanding of focus. And as I dove deeper into the conversations, I also began to reflect on and change my own understanding as well.

What influences our understanding of focus?

Most of the people we talked to defined focus in similar ways—a combination of engagement and concentration in the context of work. At the time of interviewing them, I also defined focus this way. The baby boomers we talked to felt strongly that it was the individual’s responsibility. The rest believed it was both the individual and the employer’s shared responsibility, with the exception of one person who questioned the premise entirely. It became obvious that factors like family upbringing, personality traits, and even philosophical beliefs had big influences on the way they answered the question.

Both Janet Clarke Patterson, a freelance copywriter, and Bruce Burger, an editor at NBC News, are from the baby boomer generation. Both strongly believed that it’s the individual’s responsibility to find focus at work. For Patterson, she says it’s because of her introverted personality and her occupation as a writer that she prefers to be alone so she can focus.

“I think it has to be internally motivated,” said Patterson. “It's great if an employer is like, ‘Here are some tips and tricks. Here's No Meeting Wednesday. Here's how you turn off your Slack notifications.’ But in the end I think it has to come from the individual.”

Burger attributes his belief to the cultural expectations of his generation. His parents were working full time by the time they were 18 so they expected Bruce would be on his own at the same age. “The culture we grew up with was oppressive and we believed that we had to free ourselves from that, meaning let’s not dress the way our parents do, let's not wear our hair the way they do, and let's not hold the jobs that they do,” said Burger. “And that I think influenced me a great deal. So when I had the opportunity, which was when I came of age at 18, I moved out of my house, and I moved far away. But I had no skills at that point so I had to find ways to fend for myself. It was up to me.”

According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, boomers gave their overall quality of life a lower rating than adults in other generations. They’re also more likely to worry about their finances. Perhaps these sentiments are a result of the economic ups and downs they experienced in their lifetimes. Until recently, boomers were the largest generation in population—about 76 million—and this possibly created more stress and competition for schooling and jobs than smaller generations encountered.

In contrast, nearly all of the Gen X and millennials that we talked to believed it was a shared responsibility for maintaining focus.

“This implied capitalist model in which we assume the employer is the driving force behind focus is problematic,” said Curtis Heath, a freelance film and TV producer. “I don't think that's necessarily the case or has to be the case and I hope we can move towards thinking about it as a team’s shared responsibility.”

Heath touches on the idea of collectivism, a shift in mindset from the individual to the group. According to a 2004 research study on how generational differences affect work motivation, “The life experiences that shaped millennials formed a generation that believes in collective action, optimism about their future, and trust in centralized authority.” Michael Lewis, director of marketing insights at Facebook, is one of those millennials.

“It’s a shared responsibility,” said Lewis. “Employers need to provide employees the latitude to own their time, and employees need to use that latitude to create time and space for focus. This is more than just creating ‘work blocks’ on your calendar. It means creating the right conditions for focus which is dependent on the individual. Some people need extreme quiet, while others need music.”

“Focus to me is finding where on the spectrum of micro and macro you exist in the moment and being able to stay there.”— Curtis Heath

One millennial we talked to even questioned the question itself. David Zinn, a partner operations manager at YouTube, says his studies in cognitive sciences and philosophy greatly shape his understanding of focus. “I'm not convinced 100% that either has what I would call a responsibility,” said Zinn. “My conceptualization of responsibility involves a duty or some sort of obligation. And I don’t think those obligations, whatever they may be, are the driving force behind focus.”

Zinn further explains that he believes as long as he’s providing value to the company he works for and they’re paying him for it, then the only responsibility would be to maintain that relationship, and nothing beyond that. Of course it would be within the company’s interest to increase productivity among its employees, for instance, by decreasing distractions to increase focus.

What all these conversations point to is that language in itself is a cultural construction, and that our varied personal experiences shape not only our overall understanding of a concept, like focus, but also how we act on it. As linguist Daniel Dor puts it, “first we invented language, then language changed us." Maybe even the methodology in our EIU study was flawed by assuming a universal understanding of the word focus.

Now, when I think about my own understanding of focus, I realize it’s also a product of my social and cultural influences. In particular, I’ve always associated focus primarily with work because I was taught by my Chinese parents that success in work would lead to success in life. And if I couldn’t focus, how could I do good work? But how ‘successful’ have I really been? Other than checking off boxes on my daily to-do list, I didn’t have other ways to measure my focus.

How do we measure focus and what makes us more focused?

In 1997, psychologist and neuroscientist Ian Robertson and his colleagues created the Sustained Attention to Response Test (SART), a computer evaluation that measures a person’s sustained attention while focusing on a particular task. The test has been used and cited widely, for example, in studies exploring associations between attention and media multi-tasking, and working memory and engagement on social networking sites.

In one particular study investigating the association between sustained attention and cognitive load using SART, researchers found that sustained attention failures are primarily due to cognitive load, not task monotony. In other words, we’re more likely to lose our focus because we’re mentally overwhelmed than because a task is boring. Vigilance requires hard mental work and is stressful.

If that’s true, one thing we need to do to increase focused attention is to minimize unnecessary cognitive load. In a neuroimaging study, researchers found that goal-directed behavior hinges on the ability to focus on relevant information and ignore distracters, a function referred to as selective attention or interference suppression. 

“Task switching is the enemy of focus.”— Janet Clarke Patterson

And indeed several folks I talked to said multi-tasking is inversely correlated with focus. Burger calls himself a “die-hard single-tasker” and Heath says his neuroatypical nature and personality makes it hard for him to multi-task.

Because focus isn’t binary, we shouldn’t think about it in absolute terms. Rather, we can be more or less focused. Ultimately, I want to find ways to be more focused and the conversations I had helped spur some ideas.

Fewer, better tools

The huge growth of technology has helped us work more efficiently and connect globally, but in many ways, it’s also become a hinderance. We often find ourselves distracted by the constant pings and emails we get, interrupting our flow when we’ve finally settled into a particular task. And there’s an expectation to stay on top of things and to make sure people are getting prompt responses. And if our current tools weren’t enough, we’re constantly adopting new ones.

“The more time I have to spend learning a new app, the less time I can be creative,” said Heath. “So for me, the best tools are the ones that are analog, that exist in the real world.” 

But everyone is different, with their own preferred style of working and certain apps that they need for their job. But the key is that the right ones will help, not hinder, your focus. “The right tools can help you focus by doing things like block out distracting notifications or allow you to decrease context switching by centralizing content,” said Lewis.

But finding what works for you may take a bit of trial and error. Don’t shy away from trying new things if you feel like they might help you work more efficiently. But also don’t be afraid to get rid of the ones that don’t end up adding any value. For example, when I was looking for a way to track and keep all my tasks and to-dos organized, I tried numerous task management tools like Asana and Trello before I realized that for what I needed, a simple list in the Notes app on my MacBook was sufficient.

Created shared goals

Many people we talked to said focus was a shared responsibility between employers and employees. Rather than thinking about it in terms of responsibility, maybe framing it in terms of goals instead could be more productive.

“It's not really about management versus the employees,” said Heath. “We have goals that we've set together as a team and I can achieve my focus much better if we're all stakeholders in the project.”

Creating shared goals helps keep everyone accountable so each person feels they have a share of the responsibility. To do this, it’s important to think about each team member’s unique role and what their contribution and involvement can be in the project. It’s also important to understand why each person is motivated to be a stakeholder in the first place. And lastly, to recognize individual contributions and achievements.

Find meaningful projects

What spoke to me the most from all my conversations was one discussion about what makes people passionate and how that in itself drives someone’s focus. This got me thinking, maybe the most effective way to increase focus is to find projects that are truly meaningful so focus just comes naturally. “When I’m doing projects that have personal attachment or value, it feels like I’m doing important work and that I'm valued,” said Heath. “That’s what keeps me going.”