“If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things, then this is the best season of your life.”
– Wu-Men, as quoted in
Focus, page 55
We are living in an Age of Distraction; an always-on culture that is barraged from every direction with text messages, email, cell phones, TV, twitter, blogs, IM and 24” monitors filled with 13 open windows. It was supposed to make us more efficient. In many ways it has. However, it has the power to destroy our ability to focus. For many of us, all these distractions have become addictions. They have also become a crutch – a constant excuse that keeps us from doing truly important work – work the world needs us to do. We need focus if we want to accomplish anything of value. That’s why Babauta wrote this book; to help us regain our focus.
Real Work Requires Focus
“Focus is crucial to those of us who create, because creating is so difficult without it.”
Focus, page 16
For many of us, that little icon on our email program is powerful enough to draw us away from what we were doing. Everytime. We compulsively check to see what just came in. And whatever just came in probably has something that requires responding to and includes something that needs to be done. Halfway through completing that brand new task, the compelling chirp from our phone alerts us to a new text message – which, let’s face it, is practically impossible to ignore. Then someone pops their head through the cubical door as the phone rings. The next thing we know, it is noon – and that Big Important Task (you know, the one that actually matters) – is still sitting largely untouched. But that’s ok, we come back fresh from lunch to start on it again. This time, however, the urge to check Facebook, Twitter and our favourite blogs for new posts is so strong we don’t even realize we’re checking them until it is too late. By mid afternoon, the urgent, but unimportant tasks have piled up on our desks and inboxes, so that Big Important Task is going to have to wait until tomorrow. And the cycle begins again.
It is pretty obvious that it is impossible to do real, important work with all these distractions. Babauta points out that creating is a completely separate process from consuming information and communicating with others. Obviously, we need communication and consumption – not just for succeeding in what we do, but also for inspiration and collaboration that feeds our creativity. That being said, every time we pop into email (communication) or check the latest blog posts (consumption), our brain switches gears and we lose our ability to create.
It gets worse. The more we do this, Babauta says, the more we train our brains to need that fix of communication and consumption. We literally click, tweet and email our way to a very real addiction. As long as we are drawn away from creating, we are unable to do the work that matters – work that will change our lives and the world in some small way.
Believe it or not, that’s not the worst of it. Distraction does more than just affect our ability to create. All the distractions caused by the constant barrage of our connectedness can also negatively affect our peace of mind, stress levels and, ultimately, our happiness. Our mind needs rest and, if we don’t disconnect, the stress can affect us in ways we don’t often realize. But there is hope, Babauta promises. His prescription for the distraction junkies among us are some simple steps we can take to break free and learn to focus.
“Without great solitude no serious work is possible”
Pablo Picasso, as quoted in
Focus, page 19
Just like with any addiction, you gotta go cold turkey. At least to start. What Babauta recommends is to unplug (quite literally) for some time to just give your mind some desperately needed rest. You’re going to want to shut off your email program, cell phone, Twitter, IM, blogs, TV, etc. You probably even need to unplug your Internet connection or Wi-Fi. This will end the stream of distractions. And, (after the panic wears off), you’ll be amazed at how much more quickly you’ll be able to complete typical tasks.
Now, spend some time creating, reading, get outside, find somewhere quiet and reflect. When I do this, I am always amazed at how valuable it is and how refreshed I am when I’m done. Then, once you’ve obtained a bit of mental sanity again, dip your toe back into the river of information.
The key to being effective with this is to separate your times of focus with times of consumption and communication. Don’t try to mix them. Instead, spend some time connected – say 15 minutes, and then some time disconnected – say 45 minutes. Set a timer and when your connected time ends, unplug. You have to experiment to find out the best ratio for yourself and the type of work you do. Speaking of the type of work you do, this brings us to the second meaning of focus. This is focus in the broader sense – what commitments, projects, goals and tasks do you have on your plate? Here’s where the application of a focused life offers real leverage.
Steps To Getting Amazing Things Done:
1) Find Something Amazing to work on.
2) Clear away everything else.
3) Focus on that Something Amazing.
Focus, page 88-89
This is where living a focused life comes in. We need to be working on Amazing Things. We want to accomplish Amazing Things. But all of life’s distractions get in the way. This is where the simple three step system comes in. This is an everyday thing – right out of the gate we want to be finding that Something Amazing and working on it before we do anything else. Yes, there are important emails to respond to and phone calls that need to be made. But this comes first. The purpose isn’t to be rigid and locked into only one thing – it’s great to have a few projects on the go. That way, every morning, we can work on the one that gets us the most excited, that we feel the most energized by and passionate about, that day. Procrastination and distraction lose some of their power when held up against a project that makes us come alive. If you don’t know what that Something Amazing is just yet, Babauta has some advice on that too – he lists ideas to get us started and then lets us know that we aren’t ‘locked into’ it – we can always try out something tomorrow. The key is to be in the present and let all else fade away. You might just be amazed at what you can accomplish!
Focus was an excellent follow up to Leo Babauta’s previous book, The Power of Less. When you’ve simplified your life down to the essentials, as he teaches in The Power of Less – the next step is to direct your focus, like beams of sunlight with a magnifying glass, onto those few essentials, thereby intensifying your results and the quality of your life. I’m inspired by Leo’s life and writing and I hope that you feel encouraged to eliminate some distractions and hone your focus.
PS – If you are interested in giving Focus a read, you can find an absolutely free “uncopywritten” pdf version on Leo’s website: zenhabits.net