focus

Learn to Focus to Stand Apart from the Crowd

One of the best ways to ensure your continued relevance and even enhanced prestige in anything is to be able to do something that most people can't do. I think it's a good habit to periodically look around yourself to see what skills seem to be in demand that many people are lacking. The most glaringly obvious one to me right now is the ability to truly and deeply focus on one thing. This skill, and that's what it is, a skill, seems to be fading from the personal arsenals of many people I know. I think it largely stems from a lack of adaptation as our world changes under the weight of incredible technological advancements.

The new norm is to multitask when working at the computer. The constant chime of notifications follow us from desktop to commute to personal time away from work as our phones, tablets, and computers become more mobile and ubiquitous. There's nothing inherently bad about information and there are plenty of reasons you may want to be constantly connected. I'm simply arguing that this reality is resulting in fewer and fewer people who can shut out these distractions and truly focus on something for a sustained period of time.

This starts to become important when you realize how much of the truly great work that exists from history and today relies on the ability to focus. Without focus we are constantly flitting across the surface of ideas and concepts -- never diving deep enough to figure out how they are, or may be, connected. Deep insight requires deep focus. Large projects with complex parts require us to shut out the world long enough to interact with information and ideas at a level that can only be reached with sustained focus.

Focus requires effort and it's incredibly difficult. It's easier to be distracted. It's easier to live and work on a more superficial level where the constant tug of distraction is a welcome respite from the hard work of thinking long and deep about challenging things. Luckily, there are two forces working in your favor if you choose to develop this ability. First, because it's so difficult there are less people willing to put in the hard work to get good at it -- making you more valuable and rare. Second, as you may have noticed from my choice of verbs a couple sentences ago, the ability to focus is something you can develop. It's something you can get better at with practice.

I've been spending the better part of the past few years trying to do exactly that. It's a long process and often results in frustration with how slowly I'm making progress. But like anything worth doing, the difficulty is justified.

Meditation and the development of mindfulness is always cited as a great way to develop the ability to focus, and I won't argue with that. My meditation practice, when I'm doing it consistently, is incredibly valuable. However, I think there are other ways you can train yourself to focus better so I'd rather share some of those lesser talked about ways:

  1. Listen to an album in complete solitude.
  2. Watch a movie with full concentration.
  3. Work with a paper and pen.
  4. Read with nothing but the content in front of you.
  5. Wash dishes by hand and in silence.
  6. Run without audio stimulation

Boring? Maybe. Do you have to do these things like this every single time? Of course not. If you don't normally listen, read, watch, or run like this, though, you'll quickly find that it can be very difficult to do these things with full focus. And that's the point. Try picking one of these things to do each week and take notice of what the experience is like. Build up your tolerance for focus over time by slowly adding additional time or activities to your "focus regimen."

You will be one of very few people who knows how to cut through the discord of distractions to bring your mental abilities fully to bear on tough problems. Kind of like when a professional body builder shows up at an average gym, you will be on a different level than most people -- and you will be noticed. Over time you can develop the reputation as the person who works with such deep focus that you can fly through work in half the time as most people and the solutions you come up with are deeper and creative than those who never learned to focus can develop.

It can be hard to predict what specific skills you'll need in the future but it's an incredibly safe bet to think the ability to focus will be at the center of any great work.

Photo by Sylvain Courant

How to Leverage Success Intelligently

It feels awesome to accomplish something audacious. After weeks, months, or even years of hard work and it all finally comes together into a successful product or event you are probably riding a seriously intense wave of adrenaline and excitement. Assuming it went well, you'll probably feel like you're on top of the world, the bee's knees, or the cat's pajamas. I applaud you, I congratulate you, and I want to shake your hand.

What I don't want you to do, however, is start making plans for your next project.

Maybe it feels like a waste to not utilize this surge of motivation and excitement. What better time to plan than when you're already feeling great about yourself and your abilities? And to that I answer, "Almost any other time."

Making decisions about your future when you're on an emotional high is a good way to set yourself up for unattainable expectations and burnout. It also sets you up to neglect other areas of your life that probably need attention after the period of intense focus and dedication your current accomplishment required. Instead of launching right into the planning process of something new, I encourage you to do one, or more, of the following:

  1. Reflect: Before blindly blundering into a new project give yourself some time to reflect. Let a little bit of time lapse so you can look back at the entire process with a somewhat more objective view. What went well? What challenges were faced and how were they handled? What would you do differently next time? Give yourself time to sit and observe these reflections so you can incorporate them into future projects and endeavors. Everything you do, successful or otherwise, provides data that can be used to improve the way you go about future work.
  2. Refocus: In the weeks and days leading up to a major accomplishment you often have to narrow your focus. When the first TEDx conference I organized was getting very close to happening I had to put a lot of other normal concerns on the back burner in order to give it my full attention. I delayed hanging out with friends that I'd normally see more often. I called my family less. I put forth the minimum amount of effort to get by in my classes. The end result was that the conference was a great success and everything went well but I had to make some sacrifices in the process. It was important for me to relax afterward and identify the conscious and subconscious decisions I had made in the weeks leading up to it regarding my other commitments. I had to reach out to friends, to family, and re-dedicate myself to my academic work. In a word, I had to refocus and regain some balance to my life.
  3. Recharge: Accomplishing major projects and milestones can be exhausting. While that exhaustion is often masked by the adrenaline and euphoria of accomplishment, eventually you'll come down from that high and the true state of your mental and physical health will hit you. That's why it's important to embrace rejuvenation immediately after a major success instead of immediately launching into a new endeavor.

This basic concept should be applied to both ends of the emotional spectrum. Just as it's a bad idea to make major decisions when you're emotionally high, making decisions when you're feeling abnormally low is also a recipe for disaster. That's not to say there's anything wrong with feeling particularly positive or particularly negative -- it's a fact of being human that you will vascillate between emotional states over time. However, because these are transient states they don't necessarily provide the surest foundation for important decisions. Making a decision when you're emotionally high is likely to result in unrealistic expectations while making a major decision when you're emotionally low is likely to result in overly pessimistic and negative expectations.

Embrace your success but don't let it set you up for failure. Embrace your sadness but don't let it hold you back. Find your center and use it to make realistic, optimistic, and attainable goals for your future.

Photo by jimmiehomeschoolmom

Removing Distractions at the Project Level

I write about distraction quite a bit. Considering the extent to which we are inundated with information it's a pretty easy target. Doing good work is hard and embracing distraction is easy. While distraction as a concept gets a lot of ink from writers like me, I think we may be overemphasizing in-the-moment distraction at the expense of something much larger -- distraction at the project level. 

Are any of your ongoing projects distracting you from what you should actually be working on? Do you immediately turn to a low-priority yet easy to accomplish project whenever you're feeling challenged by something more important? Checking Facebook, organizing your sock drawer, and responding to texts are the candy versions of doing work that actually matters. Projects can be candied, too. 

Have Your Projects Grown With You?

I think it's important to periodically sit down and determine if it's necessary to remove or downplay your involvement in projects that are more of a distraction than an opportunity for you to do your best work. Many projects are long term endeavors and therefore may not keep up the pace with your growth as a person. A project that seemed a good idea with your values and priorities six months ago may no longer be relevant as your values and priorities continued to evolve. Why keep plugging away at something that's doing nothing but keeping you from what matters?

Noticing The Way You Think About Your Projects

The thing is -- it's hard to do. Really, really hard to do. I recently decided to turn down a research project that was very tangentially related to my main interests, but involved several extremely interesting people. I tried to make it work for a couple weeks, but I noticed something every time I sat down to work on this project; instead of thinking about how I could bring my best and most creative self to the project I noticed I was constantly thinking in terms of time. "How long will it take me to research this section? When will I be able to move on to something else? I only have an hour to dedicate to this today." While it's not inherently a bad thing to think in terms of time, it begins to be a problem if it's the only way you interface with a project.

I decided to (as graciously as possible) bow out of the project while it was still in its earliest stages. I sent an email to the entire team (including the professors leading it) that was honest and to the point. I said that I think it's vitally important for everyone to be brutally honest with themselves and their colleagues when it comes to how we allocate our time and attention. Since the project was not connected to my primary research interests and I had many other ongoing projects, I knew I wouldn't be able to bring my highest quality of attention to the research project. While it felt good to send that email and reduce my commitment on that project, it was definitely a tough decision. But ultimately, the right one.

The other thing I noticed once I sent that email is that I attacked my ongoing projects with a renewed sense of energy and vigor. I found myself thinking that I didn't want to fail on these projects AND have stopped working on the other one. I wanted to show my colleagues on the project I removed myself from that I wasn't wasting my time. That I really was working on some cool things that require my full attention. It pushed me to be better in everything I consciously decided to keep on my docket.

Removing Distracting Projects From Your Life

There's no specific formula or list of criteria to decide whether or not a project is a distraction or should be left alone. Hell, plenty of times there are distracting projects in your life that you just feasibly cannot remove. We all have to do things we don't like from time to time but it is worth minimizing those projects as much as possible. While I can't give you a specific list of criteria, I can give you a couple things to think about as you look at your list of ongoing projects.

  • Which projects fill you with the most dread? Which projects can you not wait to keep working on?
  • Which projects feel like an impediment keeping you from what you really want to do?
  • Which projects do you think about in terms of how much time it will take to finish them?
  • Which projects are you not a primary component of? How difficult would it be to completely remove yourself?
  • Which projects have the highest cost to benefit ratio? Which projects have the lowest cost to benefit ratio? How difficult would it be to remove yourself from the former projects?

Your projects are the investment vehicles for your time and attention. Choose wisely. Review often. Be ruthless.

Photo via *Kid*Doc*One

A Week Without #1: Background Noise

Every once in awhile I'm going to conduct a one week self-experiment while sharing my reasons, insight and experiences as I do it. The idea behind this is to do things that would seem crazy if I were to commit to it for life, but might lead to a beneficial change in how I live if I were to just give it a chance. Forever is a long time -- but anybody can do anything for a week.

This week I'm committing to creating more quiet space in my life. Normally I listen to music or a podcast while I drive around, walk to and around campus, or exercise. Instead, I'm going to let myself do all of these activities in silence. Much of my future success as a PhD student relies on my ability to think deeply about tricky problems and I can't do that if I'm constantly consuming audio. I noticed when I was living back in Michigan and walking to and from my workspace every day (about a mile and a half walk) that when I didn't listen to anything I very often had good ideas for articles, projects, or developed new insights for things that were bothering me. Hopefully I can tap into that again.

A Week Without #1: Background Noise

 

  • No music or podcasts while driving, walking around, or working out.

(Hat tip to the apparently defunct Week Without tumblr for the inspiration.)

Being Fast Isn't an Advantage Anymore

There's no comparative advantage in being fast anymore.

A comparative advantage is when you're better at something than all of your competitors due to your environmental (or otherwise) advantages. For example, Canada has a comparative advantage in producing maple syrup as compared to Dubai (for pretty obvious reasons). It'd be really stupid for Dubai to try to match Canada's maple syrup output considering they are situated in the middle of a desert and Canada is inundated with maple syrupy goodness.

Applying this idea to personal productivity, it used to be that you could have a comparative advantage in productivity and effectiveness if you were super fast in responding to requests and dealing with information. Before everyone had smart phones you could gain a significant advantage over other people by quickly returning emails or looking up information. Awhile ago, it would have taken some serious skills and dedication that not everyone else would've had. You would've reaped the rewards of having a comparative advantage. You would be seen as more productive, get the promotions, the adulation, and everything else that comes with being seen as a high performer. Dealing with multiple streams of information quickly and efficiently used to be something that got you noticed.

Not anymore.

Now, almost everyone can multitask pretty well. Anybody with a smart phone can respond to emails instantaneously or look up random tidbits of information at a moment's notice. Today's technology has flattened the playing field when it comes to dealing with information efficiently. Sure, some people are better at it than others, but overall there's no significant advantage to be gained by being "good" at handling lots of information.

Where's the new comparative advantage then? As multitasking and instantaneous communication become the norm, how can you stand out? I think the new comparative advantage will go to those people that can cut through the noise of always-on information and think deeply, with full concentration, and high levels of creativity, for a sustained amount of time. Almost any kind of work that ends up being new or noteworthy requires somebody (or a team of somebodies) who eliminated distractions long enough to wrestle with some hard questions. It's not easy to do -- especially since the normal operation of our society is doing an excellent job at eradicating the skills that make this possible.

As a former student of history and a self-proclaimed history nerd, I read a lot of biographies. A hobby of mine has been to take note of the people in these biographies who have done amazing things and try to find points of similarities. Obviously, they all had different styles for doing remarkable work. However, I have found one common factor that seems to unite anybody who gets a biography written about them -- they had a very developed ability to focus. Cutting out distractions and diving deep into a problem seems to be a nearly universal skill that remarkable people have.

Unfortunately, I think this ability is being swiftly destroyed. Is that worrying to anyone else? One of the only unifying characteristic of people who do great things (in my admittedly amateur research) is being largely removed from our society! Constant distractions, notifications, instant gratification, and constant streams of information allow us to never develop our ability to focus if we don't choose to do so.

That's why I think that those people who are cultivating this ability are going to reap the rewards of being a rare commodity. Being able to focus and think deeply will get you noticed in a sea of people who are skimming along the surface. The ability to dive deep and come back with important insights, creative connections, or innovative solutions is going to be something that is reserved for those who have honed their concentration and focus.

This is part of the reason why I think meditation is going to become an increasingly "normal" thing to do over the next 50 years. While still somewhat in the domain of the mystical, meditation seems to be the single best way to develop the ability to focus. Working out is the best way to strengthen your body and meditating seems to be a great way to strengthen your mind. I hope to see the day where meditation is taught in an effort to inform people about healthy living just like eating vegetables or getting enough sleep.

Let's stop acting like we live in a world where multitasking and being constantly connected will give us some kind of advantage. It's old news by now. Almost everyone can do it. What almost everyone can't do, however, is truly think.

What are you going to do to make this comparative advantage work for you?

 

Focus vs. Doing Work

Here’s a question I’ve struggled with:

What is the better course of action; spending time to clarify my focus at the expense of actual productive work or using the creative process to refocus?

It’s a classic chicken-egg situation that I’ve yet to adequately answer. I think I’ve experienced both sides of this coin so it leaves me at a loss to decide which is the better path (and maybe that’s my answer right there)?

The first option, spending time to clarify my focus at the expense of actual productive work, is probably the avenue that I’ve had the most success with. Every time I’ve felt mired in an unproductive mindset I’ve managed to break free by refocusing. Most cases of procrastination are best answered at a “meta” level. Procrastination is not caused by a lack of tips, tricks, or lifehacks. Reading a list post about being more productive is like buying a chair about running, to quote one of my favorite writers.

Instead, rooting out the cause of procrastination is usually best done at the level of values and goals. Unclear reasons for doing something or pursuing a particular course of action will result in periods of procrastination that can be extremely difficult to exterminate. A new distraction-free writing environment or handy-dandy timershaped like a tomato might momentarily jar your routine enough to push your procrastination problem aside, but these superficialities will not cure it. Incongruities between your actions, your projects, and your values or habits are what cause the procrastination that most of us know so well.

Answering the deeper questions, or as I recently tweeted, “Answer the questions that you are most resisting. You don’t break the dam by poking the surface.” Pounding away at the dam keeping my creativity and productivity at bay by addressing the deep questions; Why am I working on this? How is it supporting my goals? Why does this matter? This has been the best way for me to realize my own potential.

On the other hand, I believe that those who seem to never procrastinate or be unproductive don’t appear that way because they don’t feel the urge to let up. The more I read about the creative process, whether through blogs like 43 Folders or books like The Creative Habit or The Artist's Way, I’ve learned that true creative professionals do not wait for inspiration to hit to be creative. They show up, day in and day out, and do work. Sometimes that work results in excellent products and creations but I would imagine that a large proportion of it never sees the light of day. But that’s ok, because when you show up everyday even a small portion of usable work is much more than what the weekend warrior creative worker will produce.

So what’s the answer? What should we do when we feel the pull of procrastination? Do we stop the production of actual work to take time analyzing our focus or do we keep plugging away with the acceptance that our muse will return?

Luckily, real life is not structured like this false either-or situation I’ve just laid out. I don’t see why the best situation can’t be a happy hybrid of the two. For example, let’s hypothesize that you are working on a significant project but have recently had trouble sitting down to work on it. You’re procrastinating and you know it.

Showing up every day and continuing to put the time and the work into the project is important, but I don’t think blindly hammering away at a problem is necessarily the most intelligent course of action either. Or, as Stephen Covey puts it, why spend all your time climbing the ladder only to realize it’s propped up against the wrong wall?

Take the time to step back and analyze your focus. Analyze your goals and find (or rediscover) your reason for working on a project. That may be time that you’re not actively creating, but the clarity of vision you’ll develop will pay dividends later on. The key component, and this would make Aristotle proud, is to find the golden mean. Find your focus but don’t spend all your time gazing at the stars. Work hard but don’t lose your nose to the grindstone. Utilize the best of both worlds to continue creating the best products you possibly can.

 

 

Adjusting Your Macro-Focus

If you’ve noticed that my writing has dropped off a little bit in the past few weeks, you’d be right. I’ve always believed that I should be writing about my life, not just feel-good theories about what it means to live better. For the past few weeks I’ve been fairly mired in a strange funk as I tried to figure out what is going on in my life. Luckily, I’ve made some significant progress recently and I’d like to share how a simple shift in my mindset has made an incredible difference on my level of happiness and satisfaction.

As I’ve written about a couple times already, I’ve been working as a full-time high school teacher since the beginning of January. This is what I went to college for so I should have been overjoyed to get this opportunity. I wasn’t. I’ve become fairly disillusioned with the prospect of being a high school teacher, but that’s a post for another time (actually, probably next week).

THE BREAKDOWN

At first I thought I just hated teaching. I dreaded getting up each morning and going to work. Yet, a funny thing happened. Every day at the end of school I found myself thinking, “Wow, well that went by pretty quick.” As soon as I removed myself from the teaching environment, the stress and anxiety would begin to build again until I was absolutely dreading getting up again and going to school the next day. It was weird. In fact, I even woke up one day, called in sick (even though I wasn’t), and begged my mom to go to lunch with me so we could talk about life. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to having a “breakdown.”

LOST FOCUS

Lately, I’ve come to realize what my problem actually was. I had a lack of focus. Usually, when I think of the concept of “focus” I imagine working on something without distractions (like how I’m writing this right now). That’s one type of focus, but that wasn’t the focus I was having trouble with. Instead, I was having trouble focusing at a macro-level.

Prior to accepting the teaching job I was essentially already working full-time for myself. I wrote and worked on my blog all day, everyday. It was my job and I enjoyed it. The problem was that I tried to put two full-time jobs on top of each other, and then wondered why I almost had a mental breakdown. Everyday at 2:30 when the final bell rung I’d feel guilty for not spending the previous 7 hours working on my blog. I’d get home and not even know where to begin with my blogging efforts because I felt so far behind and out of the loop. Plus, if I did sit down to work on my blog the pile of ungraded papers would leer at me from across the room. Or I’d start thinking about the planning I had to do to prepare for the next day of classes.

No matter what I worked on, it was the wrong thing.

TAKING MY OWN ADVICE

I couldn’t continue like this for the remainder of my teaching assignment so I finally did the intelligent thing. I reduced my commitments. Reducing my commitment came in the form of scaling back my output to one article per week. But more importantly, it was a matter of being completely okay with the fact that I’m not a full-time blogger right now.

As soon as I kept putting the unrealistic expectations of a full-time blogger and all the work that entails on top of my already hectic schedule of teaching, my mental condition improved 100%.

The best thing is, both aspects of my life have improved dramatically. I can commit more of my energy to teaching without feeling guilty about everything I’m not doing for my blog. I can take the time to really lose myself within the job for a couple months and see if this is truly what I want to do for the rest of my life. Frankly, I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to get a taste of “real” teaching as a long-term sub and not as a contracted teacher that is essentially locked in for a year. I’ve started to enjoy it much more and it has allowed me to decide where I should direct my energy in the future.

QUALITY TIME WILL TRUMP QUANTITY OF TIME, EVERY TIME

Consequently, even though my decision resulted in less attention and energy being directed at my writing, coaching, and speaking — that area of my life has seen improvement as well. My time may be more limited, but it is much, much higher quality time. A small amount of high quality time allows me to create much better work, even if it's in a lesser quantity, than I was accomplishing in my earlier unfocused state.

The simple act of adjusting my focus at the macro level, on a specific area of my life at the “expense” of another, has allowed me to enjoy both to a much greater extent than I had been lately.

ADJUSTING YOUR MACRO-FOCUS

Where can you adjust your macro-focus? We all have multiple roles, commitments, and responsibilities that are always pulling us in different directions. What if you shifted your focus from some of those requirements and centered your focus on just one area of your life — even if just for a week? Or a couple days? Maybe just an hour or two?

The tendency is to view a shifting of focus away from an area of your life as an admission that it’s not as important to you. Baloney. You should give every commitment and responsibility that you have your complete and utter focus… but not all the time. You can shift focus and you can come back to something later.

I’m going to take my own advice and kick some serious ass for the next 3 weeks of teaching. Then, in early April, my website is getting some undivided attention. If you can stick around that long (come on now, the Archives should keep you busy for awhile, right?) then I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Focus, work hard, focus on something else, work harder. Repeat as necessary. Reap the rewards.