Focus is Trending

I thought I was done thinking and writing about the importance of focus after my last post, but over the past week I kept seeing echoes of the topic in new things I was reading that were in most ways unrelated. A blog post here, a magazine article there, all had something to say about focus and productivity that jumped out to me.

Being aware of our how well we focus our attention on a task at hand, and stay focused without distraction or interruption, is the most important skill to learn if we want to be more productive with our time. But no matter how skilled we become, we’ll never be able to actually create more time.

Time is a finite commodity we are spending every minute of every day. How we choose to spend that resource, especially as it applies to our natural desire to be getting things done, often means getting caught up in “time management”—trying to do as much as we can with every minute we have. But as Tony Crabbe recently wrote in Quartz, managing our time is no longer what makes us productive; it’s how we manage our attention that matters:

“It makes logical sense that, by getting more done, we’d be likely to feel more in control. More than that, it is one of the great fantasies of time management: if you get more organized, you will get on top. However, that only works in a finite world. We haven’t lived in that world for quite a while. In our infinite world, we will never be able to get on top of everything, ever again; there is just too much to do. In Greek mythology, when you cut off one of Hydra’s heads, two would grow back. Like with the Hydra, when we complete more tasks, all that happens is more appear to take their place—send more emails, get more replies. In essence, if we do more as a result of better managing our time, we don’t get it all done—we just become busier.”

I like this way of thinking, and if you’re like me you’ve already learned the hard way that trying to maximize time by starting multiple tasks at once doesn’t multiply productivity. In fact, it often just means I’ve taken longer to do those two or three things than it would have taken to do them one at a time—and I probably would have done them better as well.

I read this brief article by Laura Vanderkam for 99u in which she suggests some simple tactics for starting to get into a better productive habit of focus. You should read the whole thing (it’s a 2 minute read) but her three fundamentals can be summarized as:

    • Do your deep, highest value work first.

    • Take purposeful breaks that really separate you from your work and let you recharge.

    • Accept that the inbox will never be empty. Leave things at the end of the day in a state you can easily return to again and walk away.

All good ideas, and a great place to start. Funny how ideas like don’t seem to find their way to us until we’re ready to recognize them and use them.

In fact, these bits of wisdom about attention and focus kept finding me even though I wasn’t actively searching for them. It was like when my wife and I first bought our new red Toyota Corolla, and suddenly I started noticing all these other red Toyota Corollas out on the road. They had always been there, but I wasn’t seeing them until I had a connection to them and suddenly they popped out from the background. Now I’ve done the same thing with thinking about focus and productivity: the more it’s on my mind, the more it stands out to me even where I don’t expect to find it.

The latest example came to me in the middle of Joel Lovell’s surprising and deeply candid profile of Stephen Colbert from the latest issue of GQ (which you should also read in its entirety – it’s emotional, funny, and hugely inspiring). There’s an awesome quote in there about Colbert’s own awareness of the importance of focus:

Back at his office, Colbert delivered a soliloquy on the necessity of focus and intention, being fully present for whatever moment you are in. He was talking about comedy, and how to make a TV show 200 times a year, but it also felt like a text lifted from the Buddha’s sutras. The final goal, the product, is beside the point. “The end product is jokes, but you could easily say the end product is intention. Having intentionality at all times… The process of process is process.”

Yeah, wrap that in your burrito and savor each bite. Have seconds.

Needless to say, I’m fired up about focus now. The hard part will be working on that intentionality portion, being aware of the goal I’m working toward in whatever my attention is focused on, and developing the discipline to maintain that focused attention without distraction.

Because truly mindful focus, when we reach it, can be a blissful thing. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has famously written about this state he calls flow, where we’re at our peak use of our skills and our attention, and awareness of time passing drops away.

This was summed up perfectly in one final piece that came to me this past week via NPR profiling Simon Espinal, the man who many consider the best weaver of traditional Panama hats in the world (who knew there was such a thing?). He spent eight months – nearly 1,000 hours – working by hand to create a single hat with the finest weave ever achieved, and probably never to be matched again. Espinal described the amount of focus and concentration required by the process as exceptional:

“When you are weaving such fine straw, you cannot allow your mind to wander even for a second… When you weave, there is nothing in the world but weaving and straw.”

That is flow. That is the peak focus I want to aim for with at least one task every day, even if it’s just writing a blog post. Because you don’t even realize you’re in that state until you come out of it, but when you do it’s like waking up from a really good dream. And if you’re lucky, when you wake from that state, you can look down at your work and say, “Look – I made a hat…”

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