I have a lot of interests. I like music, social media, pop culture, sports, issues in higher education, family, politics, television (especially HGTV and Food Network). What that means is I am often distracted and this leads to all sorts of time sucks that result in draining my attention and time. I have a nasty habit of saying I am going to get such and such done and then my news feed, a phone call, or House Hunters International marathon gets in the way. In 2018 I hope to change that in a big way. By learning to focus more effectively I hope to find the time I need to get the things done that are important to me, my family, friends, and career. So where to start?
In order to focus more effectively I turned to a book I had been meaning to read for a long time. Deep Work by Cal Newport is an answer to the need to extend our shrinking attention spans. He starts his book by pointing out that as history extends we have been shortening our attention spans. According to Memory Historian Joshua Foer most humans now have the attention span of a goldfish (or around 8 seconds). This lack of an ability to focus can greatly diminish your ability to complete tasks. The lack of attention span also hurts accuracy, attention to detail, and creativity.
So how do I increase my attention span and memory? Luckily Foer also points out that memory and attention span, like intelligence and knowledge, is malleable and not fixed. We can learn to be more attentive and change the course of our brain power. Newport suggests four approaches and I will connect certain tasks to those approaches.
- The Monastic Approach – In Deep Work, Newport points out that Monks often gets work done of high volume and high quality because they go away to a Monastery and separate them from the world. During this time they cut off all distractions and noise and focus. In my world I need this time to get major writing and planning projects done. One day a week I plan to close my door for six of my eight work hours that day and dig into my writing, reporting, and planning. Too many times I allow messaging apps, emails, and just passers by to interrupt my work. I need to retreat to my monastery.
- The Bimodal Approach – When I do not have entire days I can find blocks of time to do the same thing. However, with meetings and other distractions it can be hard to find an entire day. To meet this approach I am going to set a weekly agenda of three projects that I suspect will take 2 to 3 hours to complete and set a timer. I will then take the same approach as the Monastic Approach, just for a shorter step. The remaining time in my day can be spent multi-tasking and completing smaller tasks.
- The Rhythmic Approach – There are some tasks that I need to get done every day. Like emails, budgets, and data analysis. I plan on developing a rhythmic style where I set aside a series of “appointments” on my calendar to focus on these tasks. I am going to set the time limit to 45, 60, and 90 minute chunks where I plan on getting large chunks of work done in short amounts of time. This way I can get a bunch of tasks done and shave down my lists quickly. This also has another advantage. These tasks are often the tasks that do distract. I will set aside a writing project for an email check and that needs to be more concentrated.
- The Journalistic Approach – Good journalists have a plan and an outline on how to approach their story. They gather their evidence, information, and align it in a logical way before they even begin to write. Each Sunday will be my day to set the stage and put together all of the information and resources I will need to get the week done and to concentrate with deeper work.
There are three other tasks I will use to dig deeper and focus more. The first is to dedicate myself to my meditation time. I like walking and going to the sauna at my gym. I do my best thinking then. I need to make sure that everyday I take that 90 minutes to walk to the gym, listen to a podcast, do my exercises, and hit the sauna. This will be a time to recharge, relax, process the day behind and the day ahead, and most importantly help my body focus. It’s time to turn off my brain.
I know that my phone and all of our tablets and other technology is also a time suck. So to combat that I am planning on reformatting my phone so that it does not have the social media apps that make our phones so addictive. I can only look at Facebook on my tablet at home and for no more than 15 minutes a day. I have website blockers on my work computer to keep me focused and I will also use technology to send me into deeper concentration. Music is a great way to focus and I went through and found some focus music mixes that is made up of ambient music that sounds familiar but does not have lyrics. This helps create the white noise I need.
Finally, I am also looking to schedule my day so I leave work on time and place priority on filling my work day with all sorts of good stuff so when I go home I don’t have to think about the work I didn’t do. I can spend time with my family, go on that walk, make a nice dinner, watch some television, and prepare for the next day. Focus will an important part of getting all of my resolutions done and using the Deep Work techniques will help me reach those goals.