Affect, Recent Article, Self-awareness

Focus series: Once upon an Affect

Once upon a time…

April thinks back to the first time she consciously linked emotions to performance—to her ability to focus on the task in front of her. It was senior year; she was sitting down to block exams. First up? The Ancient History final; which is worth a considerable percentage of the final grade.

Hold up!

Have you ever sat down to slog through a tough problem at work or sit an exam and wondered what the hell you were doing?  Have you ever sat down and thought, god, I’m just not smart enough to do this? A clever person would have figured this out already because smart people know how to concentrate. Smart people focus.

Me too.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember being taught how to focus at school, at University, or at work. The expectation was simply that you could.  And would.

Hats off to the hard work teachers do, but it seems like there might be a gap in our educational curricula.

Now I’m not saying one bad experience inspired my initial interest in what it means to focus, but it might have done exactly that.  The ability to focus—and remain so—is a critical part of our daily lives. Everyone knows it’s necessary, but many aren’t quite sure what it means or how to go about it. I might have spent some considerable time since that bad experience working through ‘how we focus’. I may have interrogated people. I might have been scary.   (Apologies to those afflicted 🙂 ).

Focus: adapting to the prevailing light.

Imagine picking up a camera with a long zoom lens. One of those you adjust manually. You look through the viewfinder and the image in front of you is blurry. As you adjust the aperture, the lens draws light and gradually you achieve clarity.

Like finding clarity through the camera’s lens, we need to clean up our thinking on how we focus—the practices involved and the skills needed.

Because the act of focusing is about more than just avoiding distractions or allocating time in your calendar ‘to concentrate’. Focus is adaptive. It’s relational. When you focus, you inevitably discover, create, realise or innovate.

Think change.

Think movement.


Our story continues…

Exams mean the pressure is on. April felt a burning need to avoid throwing her GPA down the toilet, but as she sat down, looking down at the sealed examination packet, a sour taste filled her mouth. She exhaled slowly in an attempt to calm her nerves. Just then her teacher sidled up. Startled, April gasped, jumping higher than an Englishman faced with a flying cockroach. The teacher leant down, looked her skittish pupil in the eye and told her she’d just finished the marking the previous assessment piece. She’d awarded April a 93—the best mark she’d ever given for this evaluation.

Well, didn’t teach just drop a bomb.


Adrenaline flooded April’s system. She sat a little straighter. Blinking, she saw her teacher’s  face anew; noticed the flecks of hazel in her eyes, her expression; the way one eyebrow was arched just a bit.  Joy and gratitude followed. The corners of April’s lips turned slowly upwards into a smile as she took in the news.


Talk about timing praise for best affect



As the teacher sauntered away, pleased, April considered the examination packet again. Curiosity about exam took over. You can bet her capacity to concentrate was on point.  Her essay was deemed astute and well structured (at least for high school :D). She’d provided evidence for her argument and finished strongly. She took stock, formulated ideas, and emerged changed.

As a result … exam … 


Smacked in the face.

Not much has the power to influence our behaviours—sometimes for years—like remembering the sensations which left us so overwhelmed.

The effect of affect cannot be overstated.

The immediacy of affect on April’s ability to concentrate (and hence, be productive) smacked her in the face that day.

April found she’d adapted to a new and prevailing light on two fronts … during the course of writing of her essay, and on the broader question of how to focus.

Affect can motivate, moving you to action, positively or negatively. Which way will you go?

Self-awareness & affect – tips

  • Try noticing links between affect and performance and become increasingly conscious of when, why and how focus is likely to be interrupted. Affect and cognition walk hand-in-hand.
  • Try to pay attention to those conditions that trigger emotions and look for ways to better manage them.
  • The ability to perceive affect was April’s first step in learning how to stop, take stock, and return attention to the matter at hand.
  • Focus requires a deep self-awareness if we are to succeed; a willingness to examine our habits and practices; to become familiar with them and make choices.
  • Without self-awareness, focus is a battle; a never-ending fight to counter distraction.
  • The ability to focus requires space. Self-awareness makes room for that space.


In my experience, our ability to focus is underpinned by five self-awareness practices, of which the ability to perceive affect is one.


Our story doesn’t end here. Stay with me as we dive into the focus series over the coming weeks.


Thanks for spending time with me today,



Photos by Liana R

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