Category Archives: Attention and focus

A little bit of clarity

I have spent much of my life with a sense of having so much to do, so much that I want to do, but little sense of what to do next.

And this is fundamental. Dreams, plans and todo lists are only effective when they direct our actual actions at a specific point in time. To turn something from a hope or general intention into a reality, it must translate to an actual physical action, something that I do in the world.

You may be different from me. Knowing what you’re doing and when comes naturally to some – to the sort of person who isn’t likely to be diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder. And that’s great. To me that’s like a superpower, so use your superpower and do great things.

For those of us who don’t do this naturally (and this could include your child, partner or colleague), be patient and understand that we need a good strategy rather than judgement, supportive reminders rather than impatience, and affordable questions to identify our true priorities, rather than words like “just try harder”.

And a good strategy is key for people like us. At the core of that strategy, for me at least and for many clients seeking anti-procrastination coaching, is this:

Know what comes next.

Put down your next few actions (or otherwise reminding yourself) in a way that you’ll definitely see. For me that can be achieved several ways.

  • Writing my next 3 tasks on a sticky note, ideally a coloured sticky note with a felt tip pen for boldness. Or…
  • Having them in a short list that’s super easy to access on my phone (not buried in a notes app, but accessible on one tap). Or…
  • Putting a physical reminder in my way. E.g. if I need to take something with me when I leave the house, I put it on my “launch pad” by the door that I’ve learnt to always check. (My first version of a launch pad was the doorway of my bedroom – I just knew that it worked for me, long before I had any concept of ADD/ADHD.) Or…
  • For a simple sequence of actions, deciding on the next three items and committing them to memory. This only works for me when the actions are straightforward and each can be represented by a short word or two.

One or more of those might work for you. Maybe they’re all terrible for you. Doesn’t matter. What matters is this:

When you want to get things done, decide what you’re doing next and make sure you have a way to stay focused on it.

Time flowing like a hundred yachts

These words always caught my attention:
So Time, the wave, enfolds me in its bed,
Or Time, the bony knife, it runs me through.
flowing like a hundred yachts

Fiumanka Regatta, CC0 Public Domain.

I saw them frequently beginning in my first year at university, 1989, while hurrying between lectures. Two lines of verse spray-painted on the rear of the University of Sydney’s chemistry building.

They stimulated my imagination (though not enough to think about transferring from engineering to literature). Whose words were they? (This was before the world wide web.) And how should I understand their grappling with time and mortality?

Looking back, I can see why those lines grabbed the attention of my younger self. Time passed, and I had no clear sense of it. I knew that time was coming for me like a bony knife (flowing relentlessly, like a hundred yachts), yet it seemed unreal, outside my world, like a monster from a scary story. I’d not yet lost a loved one, and had no intuitive sense of time bringing death and decay.

Many years later, after the words had been removed, recited the words to a friend, who said “That’s Kenneth Slessor.” And so it is, from the poem Out Of Time, which contains the later lines:
Time leaves the lovely moment at his back,
Eager to quench and ripen, kiss or kill
Further on, absorbed in the beauty of a moment, the poet declares:
The moment’s world it was; and I was part,
Fleshless and ageless, changeless and made free.
‘Fool, would you leave this country?’ cried my heart,
But I was taken by the suck of sea.
The gulls go down, the body dies and rots,
And Time flows past them like a hundred yachts.

Most of the work that I do – with myself and with clients – comes down to moments. In particular, being to some degree present and engaged with this moment, rather than swept along by time. And while my approach involves awareness, techniques and exercises (to help clients stop procrastinating and begin acting), Slessor uses the beauty of language to make vivid our relationship with time.

Perhaps over time my coaching work will include more poetry.

Kenneth Slessor (1901 – 1971) was an Australian poet, journalist and official war correspondent in World War II. Wikipedia

 

Focus First: Facebook and Email in Their Place

The distractions

I love social media, and I’m connected with lots of smart, interesting people. I enjoy the interactions and I like that they make me think (and feel). Some of these people I count as real friends – not just Facebook friends. But needless to say, Facebook is an enormous time suck – even looking at intelligent, insightful posts is no comparison to working on my goals, creating, and carrying through on my vision. 

I’m also somewhat addicted to email. Like a laboratory pigeon pecking at a lever hoping for a reward, like a gambler putting dollar in the machine, part of my brain is hoping for the reward: the news, interesting tidbit, opportunity or idea that occasionally comes in email form. But whether or not I act on it now it’s a distraction from anything else. Once I open an email in the morning, the ideas are in my head, pushing aside my work, my top priorities, the things most important to me, which become much more difficult to focus on. Perhaps you find the same thing. The solution? The single best thing I’ve done for my productivity in the 10 years: I ignore my email until afternoon, giving email its own focused time later in the day.

I have one more morning distraction: an idea pops into my head, I look it up online and start reading. I may tell myself it’ll be a 5 minute search, but I’m a compulsive reader and it’s always more. And though there’s always something valuable to read on the web, generally it won’t change my life or world the way that meeting my commitments and exercising my vision will do.

All of these distractions have value, but they mean making a passive choice to not do something else. The alternative that works powerfully for me is to make an active choice, to defer these things and give myself time now for what’s important. I hold myself to this commitment by making it publicly – on Facebook, here on this blog, and/or to those close to me in real life. This is the commitment:

The commitment

Between now and the end of February, 2014:

  • Email only between 3pm and 9pm each day, other than than the starred messages view, or searching for a work-related email. (I use an email filters to add stars to emails from colleagues and family – anything else can wait a few hours. A search shortcut in my browser lets me search directly, without seeing other emails that could distract me.)
  • Facebook only between 3pm and 9pm each day. (I also use this time for other things, so I might miss Facebook altogether most days, which is great. If I want to share something outside the 3-9pm window, I’ll use the share on Facebook bookmarklet or add it to my-do list for later. It goes without saying that I don’t have Facebook notifications or email notifications on my phone – I don’t even have the app installed.)
  • No Facebook stream or checking the Facebook notification icon from Monday to Thursday. That means I can only check my own page, private messages and events, and only during the allowed times. From Friday to Sunday I may check what I wish between 3pm and 9pm. 
  • No internet searches or reading web articles before 1pm, Monday to Friday, unless it’s related to something I’m working on.

At the end of February, I will reassess, either keeping these guidelines or adjusting them. I’ll report back in a later blog post.

I’m looking forward to getting awesome things done with this increased focus.

What works for you?

You may have your own focus secrets. If it works for you, keep doing it.