Wrapped Thoughts

Web Developer.
Ruby on Rails, Physics,
Coffee, NoSQL.
Created by NateW
Modified by Dain Miller

On Focus, and How to Keep It


Image attributed to the amazing vramak on Flickr.

"That's been one of my mantras - focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it's worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains. " - Steve Jobs

One of the most important questions I was ever asked was "What do you do for a living?". Not because it made me want to answer it citing a lengthy resume, but in fact the very opposite, it made me think about what I focus on daily. Because to me, what we do for a living is what we put our attention on - and to some that's our jobs, but to others, it's our passions. It's what we really truly care about and what we want to think about. That's what I do for a living, but what I do 9-5 is very different. What I do 9-5 is a passion of mine, but is it 'the' passion? Perhaps not. So how do we balance that? Can we balance that? How do we preserve our attention on things we truly care about in a world of disruption?

The answers to all these questions started with the realization that the quantified self is somethig that I really needed to look into. I heard things like, "With self tracking not only can you identify and prevent certain diseases with things like blood testing, but you can increase productivity using mini-tests or trials." And that was all I needed, especially being more interested in the physical human machine that was fascinating to me. I started spiraling into the movement and using the principles therein to track things like Sleep, Diet (slow-carb), Workouts, Productive times, and even all the way down to Focus and Attention. It got so granular that I was able to identify key things that have thrown me off for years with regards to getting meaningful work done, but that I had never fully grasped.

The feeling of being focused has a strange misconception in our lives, simply because harder than it is to perceive, it is to keep. And that is primarily due to our habitually instantaneous culture (in my opinion). People will have you consider a thousand different reasons for losing focus. I don't say that to discredit the multitude of reasons, I say that to show you the importance of testing and tracking. Each person is individual and very different. Track for yourself what makes a difference, and then execute against that. To some people it may be that they are entirely too unable to multi-task, while for others it may be that they have too much caffeine - which can be a huge deterrent to focused thought. I realize that in order to get you interested I have to show you the methods, results, the why, and then an actionable takeaway - so let's do all that now.

The Method:

Everyday keep a journal'd list (or single piece of paper) that has the following items on it:
  • Single Task: ___ name of activity ___
    • Words written: (amount)
    • Feeling of focus: (strong, weak)
    • Overall energy level afterwards:
  • Multi Task: ___ name of activities ___
    • Words written: (amount)
    • Feeling of focus: (strong, weak)
    • Overall energy level afterwards:

The General Rules:
This is the important part, and where the experimentation comes into play. Dedicate at least one task a day (one medium to semi-large task) to single-focusing and one to multi-tasking. Then track your sub-items and keep them very detailed. In order to get meaningful results I recommend using the same task for both activities. I love writing as a method to track focus, because it is a great single tasking activity and it lends itself well to this method (as it required concentration). Pick an hour stretch of time to write a story. Make up a story if you have to, it doesn't matter what it is - the point here is the outcome. Then do it first from beginning to completion for the entire hour all the way through.

The Multi-tasking Rules:
The most important part of this section of the experiment is to designate scheduled multi-tasking times so that it would be more or less like real life distractions (which is impossible if you are observing yourself, hence our pre-defining). Set a timer, kitchen timer, computer timer, what-have-you for 3-5 minute interruptions. On each ding, ring, or gong like noise you are to check Facebook or Twitter (your preference) for 3 minutes and then check your favorite news site for another 1 minute. I prefer to have people check Facebook as opposed to Twitter though here, because it has more intensive consequences on our time and attention (but again, that is personal opinion).

Once you have successfully multi-tasked and read Facebook for 3 minutes or so and your favorite website for 1 minute, jump right back into writing. Get right back to it - and then get distracted again 3 - 5 minutes later. The overall goal isn't to just show "how much more you can write if you don't check Facebook," It's actually to monitor your energy levels. If you are anything like me, then by the end of the multi-tasking portion of this experiment you will have a noticeable decline in energy. Because remember focus begets attention and attention begets energy.

The Results:

For me, and the people I've tested this on, the results were profound. The amount of energy they had after a day of 100% single-tasking was incredibly high. Compare that with a day of nothing but distractions and lack of focus, and they are almost a miserable heaping pile of depression towards the end. Of course this isn't going to be everyone's result, but it seems to be the case most often.

Expand this experiment, and try it for an entire day, use both techniques, invent your own techniques. You have the entire world at your fingertips and an unlimited amount of text files to keep notes in of your progress. There is no reason you shouldn't be tracking all of the things.

I have read accounts of people who have tracked their sleep for over 10 years, to then finally figure out why they had insomnia. It is a very powerful tool, and depending on how much you are willing to throw at it, it can certainly help you in the allotted time you give it.

The Why:

As we've alluded to thus far, true focus isn't just attention (read; solely), it is rather the preservation of energy. Again, remember, this is why we are doing these exercises to essentially get all the way to the root of the problem - lack of energy preservation. If you want to be more productive doing anything that is the reason you are not. If you only came here for one sentence it's this: Single focus on tasks, and it'll domino all the way down to energy preservation. Let's dive into exactly what we mean by energy preservation though.

We all get that burn out feeling, or that feeling of lethargy where we just don't care about anything anymore. We've lost 'it'. People often refer to it as a magical spark, which makes sense because it takes a lot of energy (that by definition if you are at this point you wouldn't have) to see what's causing it. And I certainly took 24 years to realize this as well, so I'm not any different - far from it. In fact, I have been notoriously horrible with remaining focused and even more importantly energized (mentally) for the past 6 months or so. My energy levels have been deteriorating so dramatically that I found myself in a completely scrambled state of affairs. I had to do something to fix it. I didn't care about being tired, or being exhausted physically - those were normal states. What wasn't normal (to me), was being so incredibly mentally drained, and lethargic. I lacked -any- ambition. And I tried a lot of things to fix it. I tried coffee, tea, physical excercise, and even diet changes but none of them helped me regain that energy I had just a year ago. Then I got more desperate and I tried to mimick what I had done before in those years. I rewatched the same inspirational videos, and podcasts, redid the same activities and danced (but not enough). I found that to help dramatically, but it didn't help me PRESERVE that energy. It helped me when I needed it, like a adrenalin shot in the arm, but I needed a constant source of it, and that just wasn't cutting it. But this method that I showed here, really showed me how I can preserve it. That is what I do now, and it has helped immeasurably.

The Takeaways:

  • - Do every new task you have from this day forward all the way through without checking email/facebook/twitter/or stopping. (to the extent that it's physically possible).
  • - Turn off ALL distracting notifications from your phone, and remove every ding from every device you own. Emergencies are rarely that, but people certainly will have you believe otherwise. Of course leave call alerts on in case family or friends call, etc.
  • - Remove all distractions from your Mac or PC (including auto updates from Facebook in Notification Center/emails/etc).
  • - Keep your email client or tab closed other than at pre-decided times (I use 11am and 4pm) in which you will check all the batched email you have received and do any needed replies then.
  • - Keep Facebook/Twitter/all other social networks closed 22/7. Leave yourself two hours in total for the week for browsing these sites - which comes down to about 15 - 17 minutes per day. MAX.
  • - Plan out your new tasks and goals that you will accomplish with all this newfound energy and mental space. Keep in mind you will have roughly 20% - to sometimes 50% more space mentally to harbor the accomplishment of these goals. Use it wisely.
  • - If you have a commute, read. And don't stop.
  • The ability for you to be distracted should now be almost zero, and remember doing all these things are fine if you are the exception to the rule, but most of us sadly aren't. And if you are of the mindset: "Well, I'm commuting anyway and have to sit still for over 30 minutes - mine as well check Facebook the whole time." That is fine, but think about it this way - you could do that or you could realize that it is a brilliant time to extend focus. To empower energy. In fact, any time that you have, especially sitting still, you should use it to extend focus rather than losing it. Therefore preserving energy instead of losing it. To give you an idea of how detrimental the simplest slip up can be, today for instance, I've checked email and facebook once completely unecesarily (Well perhaps facebook 3 times). And I am already totally burnt out, and those all happened within a timespan of 3 minutes (before which I was of a rather normal energy level). That's how much of an effect the smallest mental drop out can cause, so be very careful with how you allocate it. Nobody is perfect, and nobody is asking you to be, but what is being asked of you is to be aware of the fact that you have the choice to be anything you want in life. The difference between you and Michael Jordan? You and Richard Branson? You and Steve Jobs? Focus.

    This day has presented a challenge: to focus, and accomplish your goals. Do you want to be sailing the Greek Islands, or skydiving high above Fiji? Well, it's up to you to do it - nobody else.

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