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.
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Finding Focus

It’s only been a week since my last post about paying attention and my attention has already drifted. But in a good way. That is to say, as my #ConstructiveSummer reading of Work Simply has continued, I’ve moved from being more focused on my attention, to paying more attention to my focus.

I was focused on my attention; now I’m paying more attention to my focus.

There’s a lot of subtle detail in that shift. Attention and focus seem to go hand in hand, two sides of the same coin, but the more I read and observe about myself at work and through my daily routines, the more I realize the difference in scope that attention has compared to focus. Mainly that I can “pay attention” to a lot of different things and still be distracted and unproductive, but when I am really focused on a task I don’t distract easily and will find it hard to do anything else until what I’m working on is done.

I’ve known for years now that my biggest daily challenge is with keeping focused on a task. Call it “monkey mind” or just A.D.D., staying focused on a task that isn’t naturally engaging often takes extraordinary effort for me, and it’s something I’ve struggled with since elementary school. My parents could tell you stories…

Over the years I have invented all kinds of tactics for coping with this, and for the most part I improved. But recently, moving into a new career brought out my weaknesses in ways I haven’t had to deal with in a long time. I started falling behind, losing track of deadlines, and failing to complete important tasks. Frankly, it was embarrassing, and depressing.

But I have found some improvement from medication over the past few years, despite my initial resistance. Taking a pill has such a strong stigma for me, something associated with being sick or broken, as if it was a crutch; something for short-term assistance until it can be overcome by willpower and discipline. But in the past couple of years I’ve worked with my doctor and found a formula and dosage that is consistently beneficial and sustainable. It’s not a crutch anymore, but more like eyeglasses for my brain: I can see and operate in the world without them, but everything is much more clear with them on, and my natural forces of resistance are drastically diminished. In a word, I feel more normal.

Of course, there is no magic pill to solve the larger problem of getting things done. I’m glad to have found that extra tool that helps, but there’s no point in having focus if it’s not being put to good use. Focus is how we burn the fuel of attention, and we pay for all that attention with time.

Focus is how we burn the fuel of attention, and we pay  for that attention with 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 productive, requires attention and focus. And, more importantly, it requires understanding our goals in all aspects of our life. Without understanding what is really important to us, even if that evolves and changes, we are just losing time.

Those goals are what I plan to focus on next.

Summer School

When I was younger and school had closed for the summer months, any kind of textbook would be the last thing I wanted to read. Give me a stack of recreational reading—adventure novels, compelling histories, or a good biography—and a shady, insect-free spot to read outdoors and I’d be good from July through September. Summer school? That was for kids who were behind or had problems learning.

That spirit still tugs at me each summer, but now that I’m comfortably into my forties I also see how great the idea devoting time in summer to extra learning can really be. As someone who works in higher education, the break in the academic calendar offers a natural downtime worth taking advantage of.

So this year I’m devoting myself to the idea of a constructive summer, and planned my own little summer school course in personal productivity with a few books that I’ve had sitting in a small pile just waiting for me. To make it more like being in a class, I’ll be writing about each book here on my blog as I make my way through them week by week, reporting on my progress and what I’m learning as I go. I outlined the full syllabus, such as it is, in my latest 100% Human newsletter if you would like to take part in this course with me and read along. Continue reading →

Make (Up) No Little Plans

There’s something about the arrival of spring that brings with it a desire to throw out the clutter and the noise of the old and to start anew. I’m filled with a desire to get organized, build something lean and bold; something simple, smart, and effective.

I first came across this quote years ago, but only recently has it spoken to me in a way that feels inspiring:

Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.

It’s attributed to the architect Daniel H. Burnham, who is most famous for his 1909 plan for the City of Chicago. But “attributed to” and “a quote from” are not the same thing, and it turns out it’s really difficult to find a contemporary source for this quote in anything written or spoken publicly by Burnham himself. In fact, it’s almost easier to find blog posts and magazine stories pointing out this misattribution than it is to find where the quote actually did come from.

In an era when it’s easy to assume that the source of every famous quote is available at our fingertips, I was surprised at how enigmatic this particular quote seems to be, and yet also how often it has been used as a source of inspiration and even as a rationale for desicions.

As a college-educated person who learned the difference between primary and secondary source material a long time ago, I’ve always tried to take attribution seriously. Even when it’s just a blog post, I think it’s important to provide links to the orignal source of where a quote or image or idea is coming from if it’s not my own. So in that spirit, here is the closest I’ve come to figuring out the true origin of this quote, as summarized in Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations, edited by Suzy Platt, which attributes the quote as follows:

While Burnham expressed these thoughts in a paper he read before the Town Planning Conference, London, 1910, the exact words were reconstructed by Willis Polk, Burnham’s San Francisco partner. Polk used the paragraph on Christmas cards in 1912 after Burnham’s death in June of that year.—Henry H. Saylor, ”Make No Little Plans,” Journal of the American Institute of Architects, March 1957, pp. 95–99.

While I discovered it is possible to find a record of that historic 1910 Town Planning Conference which includes transcripts of remarks and papers shared by the guests, I was not able to get my hands on a copy from any local library, nor do I have the disposable outcome to order or even “rent” an e-book version of the full volume just so I could look for this quote.

Because ultimately, what does it matter? Our history and culture are chockablok with misattributed quotes and untruths we take for granted. What matters is what we take away from it ourselves, and what it may inspire us to do.

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger says as much in his 2009 piece in The New Yorker marking the centennial of Burnhams’s Chicago plan,

“Burnham is famous for the line ‘Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood.’ There is little evidence that he really said this, but everything he did suggests that he believed it. If Theodore Roosevelt had been an architect, he would have been Daniel Burnham.”

I think that sums it up perfectly. In the end it doesn’t matter. This quote will live on regardless of who said it, and just like any good writing, if it speaks to you, than that means it’s worth appreciating line by line.

Make no little plans.
They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.
Make big plans;
aim high in hope and work, 
remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.
Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us.
Let your watchword be order
and your beacon beauty.

Think big.

Aphorisms of Discipline

uncluttered desk with macbook computer

To be at the office and to be at work are not always the same thing.

As the prostitute once said, “It’s not the work, it’s the stairs.”

Discipline is the sum of habits multiplied by time. The stronger the habits, the less time one needs.

There are tasks and projects we do, and then there is our work. There is no harmony without all of these notes being sung together.

“You are the song you are learning to sing.”

A tool that makes work is no longer a tool.

Use your tools; don’t let your tools use you.

There will never be productivity tools or tactics that can actually put your ass in the chair and make you get something done.[*]

Self-discipline is the ultimate killer app.

Do not put off repetitive tasks; embrace the opportunity for mindful reflection.

Do it yourself, or delegate it. You can’t do both.

Sometimes the one you must delegate to is yourself in the future.

“Do, or do not. There is no try.”

Baby steps. One day at a time. Bird by bird.

Discipline is a life habit, not a life hack.

Freedom is completing the thing long avoided.

Good discipline requires practice; good practice requires discipline.

When the time comes, you should be there.

Discipline knows the color of the empty inbox.

Discipline is the sound of one hand clapping the laptop shut at the end of the day.


*(If there ever is, it probably means that humanity has lost the fight against the rise of the machines, and I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.)

Finishing the Shark

The most productive part of the last Wednesday of February may have been the two hours at the end of the afternoon I spent outside of the office with a few first-year students, carving a great white shark out of a pile of snow.

SnowShark-Instagram

I’ve been working with most of the students involved throughout the academic year as part of the First-Year Residential Experience program at our college. Teamed up with an RA in one particular residence hall, I help create special events and activities about once a month for students, generally around a core-curricular theme of “Inquiry, Innovation, and Imagination.”

This particular day, I was challenging them to bring innovation and imagination to snow sculpting, because we’ve had a couple feet of the stuff lying around campus for weeks. I supplied hot chocolate and hot cider. It was a sunny day, making it feel a lot warmer than the 14 F degrees it probably was.

We had fun. And these students kind of blew my mind. I mean, of all the things I could have expected to see sculpted in the snow by the end of this activity, a great white shark rising up out of the ground would have never occurred to me.

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How Nice People Leave

sunset_road

We’re losing a valuable member of our team at the office today, and it sucks.

Well, it sucks for us anyway – not for her. She’s leaving to get married, returning to her home state with her new husband, and returning to the job she left when she came to work with us. That’s right–she’s so good at what she does that her old employer was happy to make room for her to return. In other words, she’s going to miss us too, but she’s not going to be hurting for career opportunities.

We’re all very happy for her, obviously. It’s exciting to see a talented person embark on a new chapter of their life, seizing an opportunity and going for it. And it’s not all that unusual, really. Staffing turnovers are just another part of the landscape even in higher ed marketing offices like ours. I can think of a dozen people who have left our team for one reason or another during the nearly five years I’ve been in my job. And we’ve had just as many new people join the team in that time, including the one who’s leaving today.

But her departure stands out to me because she is going out with the most awesome courtesy and professionalism anyone could have hoped for, going above and beyond anything I’ve seen before to be absolutely sure we know as much as possible about how she did her job and that we’ll have the tools and resources we need to help us continue the work she started.

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