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.

“Attention Must Be Paid”

As I have continued to pursue my Summer School reading of Work Simply over the past few weeks, three things have become very clear:

  1. This book is full of simple, practical tips and exercises rather than just advice and theory, which is just what I was looking for. But that also means it’s not a book that can be read through quickly if one is to make the most of it.
  2. Finding time during the workweek to prioritize self-development “homework” amidst all my other daily tasks has not been as easy as I thought it would be.
  3. Finding time to follow-up on that reading and put my thoughts and feelings about it into a blog post feels almost impossible.

I had been hoping to get through about 20 pages a day in this book, which is a pretty modest goal; I often read as much as 50 pages a day for a book I’m really into. But I didn’t take into account the difference between merely reading a book vs. studying a book. The whole point of this project is to be learning and improving, taking notes from the text and applying ideas, which actually makes Work Simply a great place to start.

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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 →

Back to Sleep

I’ve been sleeping soundly again, which is nice. Leading up to the start of the conference I was co-chairing two weeks ago, I hadn’t realized how the quantity and quality of my sleep were declining, probably because I was compensating for the effects with caffeine and adrenaline.

The night before the conference I didn’t sleep well at all, and what sleep I did get was filled with stress dreams. I made it through the day of the event largely powered by coffee and Soylent.

After it was all over, I was exhausted enough to sleep more than eight hours straight for the first time in weeks, and I awoke feeling genuinely refreshed. It made me wonder why I can’t sleep like that all the time.

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Putting It Together

I’m exhausted, but I couldn’t sleep if I tried.

I did try, but I haven’t had my usual uninterrupted night of sleep in a couple of weeks at least. I’ve been constantly distracted at work by notifications and messages and reminders of something else that needs my attention, and I’ve had to figure out how to the share responsibility for looking after a multi-limbed thing that, like a quantum theory cat, seems to only behave predictably until you observe it, then it veers somewhere else you didn’t expect.

This is part of what is has been like for me as a co-chair of the HighEdWeb NY Regional Conference that we’re hosting here in Ithaca today. It all feels so familiar, working with people and organizations I’ve known for years. But there’s also an alternate-dimension feeling to it all, being on the other side of where I normally am, where people I usually find myself traveling to see have now traveled to see us and each other.

Planning this conference has been like putting on a wedding, a variety show, and a trade expo all in the same space on the same day. There are guests who have traveled hundreds of miles and paid us money to be part of something exciting and helpful; our presenters have put in hours of their own to create a show of new ideas they’re excited to share; we have sponsors and vendors who want to introduce themselves to potential new client; it’s exhausting even writing about it, never mind keeping track of it.

I couldn’t be happier.

A few hours from now we’ll have officially kicked off our conference, and I’ll be bouncing from one presentation room to another, and on my phone from one Slack channel to another, looking after a bunch of amazing volunteers that have helped us get things together and making sure everyone who is there feels that everything is awesome. I’m so excited to see what we’re going to learn today, so amazed that we’ve got 130 people here to learn and discuss new ways to do our jobs better, and I’m so proud to be part of the team that is making this happen.

I love being part of HighEdWeb and maybe someday I’ll do this again. Just give me a few days to catch up on my sleep first…

Making Ear Contact

I’ve been thinking a lot about time and attention lately. They are two of the most valuable personal resources we have, and finding the best way to combine them into daily productive outcomes affects a lot of what I find myself writing about here.

It’s hard to think about attention without thinking of its biggest enemy: distraction. What distracts us from being attentive most? Is it the screens in front of us? Is it the little thoughts that keep popping up in our minds or buzzing notifications on our phones?

(I’m sorry, can you repeat the question? I wasn’t listening.)

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Offline? That’s Fine

We recently had a campus-wide network outage at the college where I work. It only lasted a couple hours but it was enough to seriously disrupt the day of web content manager, like me, who relies on access to websites and online tools to do their job.

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It really should have been something that destroyed my productivity, something to panic about and rant and complain with my co-workers over: “Can you believe this? Just as I was in the middle of site changes. WTF!” It would have been really easy to use this as an excuse to not get something done, to just kill time until the connection was restored.

At least, that’s how the old me would have felt. This time, I recognized the loss of an internet connection for the gift it actually was.

In fact, I barely noticed when the connection disappeared because I was already working offline when it happened—deep into Excel sheets building site-audit tables and content update schedules. When I happened to look up and notice my instant messenger app was offline, my reaction was less “oh crap” and more “huh, that’s weird” because it was no big deal.

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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.