I don't like my attention to be spread across many different areas at once. I've found that when I can focus my attention on only one or two areas at a time, I tend to do much better work. When I first started this blog, I tried to maintain my personal blog and my teaching blog at the same pace as this one. I thought writing 8 articles a week for 3 different blogs was sustainable. I quickly realized that was insane and dropped my two less-important blogs to a more sporadic posting schedule. A similar example is when I have more than two books going at once, I seem to get through none of them. On top of that, not only do I seem to not finish anything, I can never remember where I am in each book and end up re-reading a lot of it. If there is one thing I have learned as I have delved more into the concept of simplicity it is that my attention is nearly the most important resource I have. The people who are very cognizant of how they spend this incredibly finite resource seem to be the ones who make the most impact.
Last week I was feeling very spread out and thin. I decided to take a look at the "open loops" I had going and was not surprised to find the culprit behind my lack of focus. I was reading four books at the same time, I had three rough drafts for posts waiting to be edited, a couple more in outline form, two partially read articles sitting on my desk and a small stack of unresolved mail. Each of these open loops was gnawing at my subconscious.Individually they were easy to ignore-- together they were driving me nuts.
I work best when I can take all of my attention and energy and focus it on one point of impact. Having multiple ongoing projects or nagging errands sitting around was slowly eroding my ability to focus.
- Identify open loops: An open loop is anything that is demanding some of your attention when it really should be spent elsewhere. For me, open loops can be partially read books or articles, small but annoying errands, and partially completed projects of many kinds.
- Pick the easiest to close: Figure out all the errands you need to run and do them all together (also known as batching). Decide what book you want to finish first and ignore the others until you do so. In fact, are those other books you're reading really that good? You don't get a ribbon for finishing a book you know-- if it's not worth your time, close it and forget it.
- Work your way from the bottom up: Pick the easiest ones to finish first because we're trying to build momentum for those larger loops that need your attention. Remember, the whole idea is to get rid of these little attention grabbers as quickly as possible. The larger the loop the more attention you're going to need.
- Get back to work on what really matters: This is the most important step-- do not skip it! Now that you've taken an hour, an afternoon, a day, whatever, to close these open loops it's time to focus on the work that really matters. Do not let the act of closing loops lull you into a sense of great accomplishment. You have much more important things to do.
If you are feeling spread out I recommend you follow these steps. Your focus is the key to accomplishing great things. You can't center it on those great things if you have open loops begging for attention.