Why focus isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

Did they have “lines” at your school?

It’s when, as a punishment, you’re forced to write out the same sentence over and over again.

(Like Bart does at the start of each episode of the Simpsons.)

I remember being given lines twice – both times when I was twelve.

In one case, it was absolutely deserved. (But I didn’t bother writing them – and somehow got away with it.)

The other time, it was bullshit – and I did write them.

So I guess karma evened out in the end.

The reason it was bullshit was that my English teacher gave my class a creative writing exercise. And, while working on that exercise – and thinking of what next to write – I was gazing out the window.

The teacher saw this, assumed I was slacking off, and made me write this 200 times:

“Concentration is the essence of good work.”

Well…I’ve got news for him – and for you – that’s not always the case.

That’s because the part of your brain that makes you focus isn’t the part of your brain that comes up with ideas.

A Technique for Producing Ideas

This was explained by James Webb Young in his book, A Technique for Producing Ideas.

Young was a successful ad man and summed up the idea generating process as follows:

Step 1: Research – you learn as much as you can about the subject you’re writing about. So, if you’re writing an ad, study your client, their product, their past advertising, their prospects, their competitors, their competitors’ advertising…

Step 2: Digest – make notes on what you studied.

Step 3: Internalise – put the problem out of your mind and do something else. Let your subconscious do the work.

Step 4: The Eureka Moment – the big idea for your ad appears out of nowhere.

Step 5: Hone the idea.

Now, let’s look at these 5 steps.

In steps 1, 2 and 5, focus is essential. 

But…without steps 3 and 4 – which require a LACK of focus, the whole idea-generation process doesn’t work.

And I’ve found that’s true when I’m writing ads.

I found it was true when I was a computer programmer and trying to find a breakthrough solution for a tricky problem.

And I find it’s true when, as a marketer, I have to create attribution and ROI models.

For example, earlier this year, when I was creating customer journey models for a client – including modelling their value per signup for different traffic sources.

This was particularly tricky as they didn’t track customers per traffic source.

So I used Young’s technique.

I looked at the problem from all the logical angles.

Once I’d exhausted all the “typical” approaches – and hit a dead end when none of them worked – I moved on to a different task. Then the solution simply “popped into my head” a couple of weeks later.

So, if you are trying to solve non-trivial problems – and you hit a brick wall – stop focusing and use Young’s 5-step approach instead.

All the best,

Steve Gibson