The Question of Focus

18 Dec

Almost everyone I know struggles with the problem of having too much to do, and not enough time to do it. Yet, most people (including me) waste time on stuff which actively distracts them from the task at hand. For me, the key learning a a freelancer has been to focus on the tasks in front of me, rather than on the many other things that are “interesting”. Nothing focusses your attention better than knowing that every second you waste is billable time.

Among the reasons we let our attention be diverted from the tasks at hand are:

1. Fear of the tasks: At times, we don’t know how to do the stuff we are supposed to do. At times, the next step isn’t that clear. And so, rather than attack the problem differently, we read magazines, track down pictures of cats laughing, refresh the email inbox yet again, click through on the Facebook comments of our 950 “friends”…in short, anything but the task at hand.

2. Misplaced Belief in our own skills: Studies show that 90% of drivers believe they are better than the average! It is true of almost all of us, that we tend to over-estimate our abilities at getting things done. Consequently, we underestimate the time, effort, and resources required to accomplish the tasks at hand. And so, we let things slide…

3. Lack of hobbies/passions: i.e. what I call as “good time-wasters”. Ask around you, and 9 out of 10 people don’t seem to have any hobbies worth mentioning. Which is the reason (probably) repetitive regressive soap-operas & orchestrated “reality shows” manage to garner such large audiences. Most people would rather click through 90 channels again & again (and yes, yet again!) for 3 hours in the vain hope of finding something worth watching, than switch off the flickering screen, and read a book, write that thesis, play a game of chess with their kids, or go for a walk on sunny winter afternoons (I speak from personal experience!) Ask a young MBA to describe his average day, and it will be “wake up, breakfast (sometimes), drive to office, meetings in office, drive back, dinner, tv, sleep”. Ask about their weekends, and they’ll say “laze in the morning, brunch, shopping, movies, party, weekend over”.

4. Importance of “busy-ness” over “business”: Most bosses will profess that they don’t care what their people do with their time, as long as work gets done. However, most bosses (& colleagues) will look at a guy leaving at 5.30 as “too free”. So, people take long tea breaks, smoking breaks (even non-smokers), lunch breaks. They spend hours in front of gmail in office. And attend (or worse, organize) long afternoon meetings. Anything to allow them to spend long hours in office, and ensure that when the boss peeps in, they are seen as busy!

5. Mistaken priorities: As humans, we behave like Pavlovian dogs all too often. The chime of a new email arriving in our inbox is usually enough to get us away from the spreadsheet we are working on. Is it any wonder then, that we prioritize the “urgent” over the “important”? The situation is usually worsened by the fact that the “important”, long-term projects are usually complex, while the urgent stuff is simple. It is made more acute by the fact that if you prioritize the important, you can go home at 6pm a few months from now. While those focusing on the urgent will be burning the midnight oil, and earning the praise of the boss as “hard-working” folks!

In the passing, 2 links for the day, talking about Focus & related issues:

Peter Bregman writes:

The world is moving fast and it’s only getting faster. So much technology. So much information. So much to understand, to think about, to react to…So we try to speed up to match the pace of the action around us. We stay up until 3 am trying to answer all our emails. We twitter, we facebook, and we link-in. We scan news websites wanting to make sure we stay up to date on the latest updates. And we salivate each time we hear the beep or vibration of a new text message.
But that’s a mistake. The speed with which information hurtles towards us is unavoidable (and it’s getting worse). But trying to catch it all is counterproductive. The faster the waves come, the more deliberately we need to navigate. Otherwise we’ll get tossed around like so many particles of sand, scattered to oblivion. Never before has it been so important to be grounded and intentional and to know what’s important.
Never before has it been so important to say “No.” No, I’m not going to read that article. No, I’m not going to read that email. No, I’m not going to take that phone call. No, I’m not going to sit through that meeting.
It’s hard to do because maybe, just maybe, that next piece of information will be the key to our success. But our success actually hinges on the opposite: on our willingness to risk missing some information. Because trying to focus on it all is a risk in itself. We’ll exhaust ourselves. We’ll get confused, nervous, and irritable.

I was nodding so hard as I read this, my kids could have mistaken me for their favorite Enid Blyton character! If you want to read only one blogger regularly in your life, Peter Bregman is it!

And then, Dorie Clark popped up with the 5 things you should stop doing:

Every productivity expert in the world will tell you to check email at periodic intervals — say, every 90 minutes — rather than clicking “refresh” like a Pavlovian mutt. Of course, almost no one listens, because studies have shown email’s “variable interval reinforcement schedule” is basically a slot machine for your brain. But spending a month away — and only checking email weekly — showed me how little really requires immediate response. In fact, nothing. A 90 minute wait won’t kill anyone, and will allow you to accomplish something substantive during your workday.

Her post is full of other advice goodness for all self-employed folks, and deserves a fuller reading!

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Posted by on December 18, 2011 in Biz/Tech, Links, Thoughts


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