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The 3 Worst Pieces of Advice I’ve Received About ‘Focus’

During my journey of learning how to be more productive and efficient, I have come across many websites containing some excellent advice, as well as colleagues having also given excellent tips. There are, however, many times where the advice has simply been awful, quirky, or downright stupid. Here are my top 3 worst pieces of advice I received on focus.

1. Keep a cluttered workspace

’A workspace, cluttered or not, does not affect focus.’

I laughed when I saw that statement. Clutter creates tension, anxiety, and a sense of non-clarity. You might be working on your desktop or laptop, not requiring anything from your actual workspace, but humans have this thing called peripheral vision.

We see our piles of papers strewn across our desk, the post-it notes, the coffee cups (and probably coffee stains too). These all form a picture in your sub-conscious that simply does not conform to applying focus when you need it.

2. Remove all distractions

’Close all other applications (including email), move to a quiet spot, put on noise cancelling headphones.

In today’s world of being constantly up to date and available, it is not feasible to disconnect from everything.It may be possible when you are by yourself at home, but at the office it is a different story. In an open plan work area, with a job that requires you to monitor emails or alerts, it is not conducive to remove all distractions.

We cannot close our email applications. We cannot put on our headphones. We certainly cannot disappear for hours on end to ‘focus’.

I say work with these distractions.

3. Focus for long periods of time

’Knuckle down, sit tight, and go for as long as you can, until you have completed your task.

No, that’s not how it works. The basic understanding is that humans focus best for small periods of time, with small breaks in between. The optimum time for any given period of work being between 90-120 minutes.

You can always try the Pomodoro technique, or the hack job that I work with every day.

My advice: Do what’s right for you

At the end of the day, there are so many techniques and suggestions on how you can work best. So many people promising they have the one-size-fits-all technique that will turn you into a productive ninja – focusing and judo-chopping through your tasks all day and all night.

But the truth is, there is no single solution. We are all different, and in turn, work differently. You have to find what works for you. This will probably be a hybrid of what you have found online, read in books, or seen your colleagues do.

Putting a piecemeal technique together, from experience and research, is how I got to where I am today. My colleagues often comment on how productive I am, but there is no secret to my methods. All I have done is learn from them and integrate it into my way of working.

I have read, watched, learned, and adapted my working style to suit me. This has meant that I can achieve a lot more in any given day. Not superhuman typing, not delegation, or even super speed (as some people might think). Just simple, effective management of my emails, prioritisation, and focus of the tasks demanding my attention.

[image source: Alex Trukhincc0]

Take Action

Stop complaining. Stop moaning. Stop blaming. None of these things have ever changed you, me, or the world. All they ever achieved was negativity and anger. There is only one thing that will change this world – no, it is not that hippy ‘love’ stuff.

Successful people do not complain about the things they have the ability to change, they simply change them.

When we are unhappy with a situation, it usually ends up with some bitching and moaning. We complain about how it makes us feel. We blame somebody or something for causing it. And we expect it to magically rectify itself so that we can get what we want.

That is not going to happen any time soon. Nothing will change until someone takes action.

Nothing changes if nothing changes.

For example, you could complain to customer service about your defect product. You could moan to your girlfriends (or boyfriends) about your useless partner. You could bemoan where you are in life now.

None of it will change without action.

You won’t get a refund without customer service taking action. Your relationship won’t change until you take action. You won’t get anywhere in life until you take action.

If you don’t ask, the answer is always no. If you don’t step forward, you’re always in the same place. – Nora Roberts

You alone have the power to get yourself to a point where you are happy. It is tough. It takes guts. But if you want the product, relationship, or life you deserve, you need to fight for it. It isn’t going to be handed to you on a silver platter.

If customer service is not taking action, escalate up the management chain. If you can’t get through to your partner, dump him to the curb (and that’s what he deserves if he doesn’t want to understand you). Try something new in your life, take a step, challenge yourself.

I’ve already taken up too much of your time. Stop reading this now, and take action.

Action may not always bring happiness; but there is no happiness without action. – Benjamin Disraeli

[image: Flickr user Piermario]

The Power Of Human Interaction

While on the train commute home the other day, I chatted the entire ride with someone I worked with a few years ago. We are more acquaintances than friends. Even when we worked together we never socialised about anything outside of work. This train ride was more personal, and it felt good. It felt real. I discovered a bit more about him, his family, and his goals. He, in turn, discovered the same with me.

I felt a sense of accomplishment when getting off the train. A sense that something good had happened. I realised this is how I felt after every good conversation, how we all feel after a good conversation with someone.

The proliferation of digital communication has caused our world to be riddled with inconsistent conversation, meaningless memes, and other crap that doesn’t add value to our lives. Whether that communication is email, social media, or text message, society has become used to hiding behind these communication channels putting on a pseudo-image of themselves, rather than the real thing.

I know I have drifted every now and then over to the dark side of pseudoism, whereby I would rather hide behind a digital screen or a certain perception I gave on Facebook. I would rather send an email to a person who works on the same floor as me, or text a 3-page essay on my phone. It somehow felt safer to use digital communication.

I am a big fan of social media. It certainly adds another perspective to a relationship. But the digital aspect should only be an addition to the real-world relationship. It should not be the only means of communication – especially if the person is in the same office or house as you. Hell, digital communication should not be the sole medium if you are in the same city.

Invite said person for a coffee and talk. Talk about anything. You could even use the updates you’ve seen on Facebook as a conversation starter.

That conversation on the train ride home I mentioned earlier really helped me understand that the people here, right now, are the ones that matter. The people you can see, touch, hear, and interact with are the ones to put your energy into. They are the ones that will bring you through the tough times. They are the ones that you can experience life with.

Coffee, dinner, movies, concerts, good old barbeques in the backyard. Life experiences with people in the real world is where the action happens. And that is exactly where you need to be. To laugh, cry, argue, high-five, pinkie swear – whatever it is that will help you build the relationships around you.

Next time you are out with a friend, or friends, don’t worry about your phone. Ignore the Facebook notifications, or the Twitter alerts coming through. You have someone sitting right in front of you who can give you the interaction you want. The human interaction you need.

There is so much more benefit when having a real conversation with people. Body language, nuances in a joke, touch, even the surroundings add to the situation. Typing on the keyboard simply does not match up. And there is no way that it ever will.

The exception to this is ‘what about people on the other side of the world’. Well, that is also completely feasible, but it’s a completely different type of relationship. All you are communicating with is a bunch of sporadic social media updates (and maybe a few emails too).

No real conversation. No undertones. No experiences.

I’m not saying a digital relationship is a bad relationship. My family and lifelong friends are on the other side of the planet (literally). I am building new relationships through Facebook and Twitter that I hope will develop into longer term ones.

But at the end of the day, no relationship is complete until physical presence is obtained. No existing relationships will keep their meaning unless physical presence is maintained. It is sad. But that is human nature.

We are beings yearning for physical interaction.

Who is that someone that you have been meaning to contact for a while now? Pick up the phone, send a text, or send a Facebook message, and invite them out for a coffee and a chat.

[image: Flickr user Guian Bolisay]

Working With Distraction

I’m writing this at 7:20 in the morning. I’m sitting on the couch while my two young sons run around the room, shouting and playing. Mickey Mouse Clubhouse is airing on the TV. And the cat keeps nuzzling into my lap, knocking my arm while I’m trying to type.

This got me thinking about distractions, and working through them.

So many sources of information state that we should get rid of all distractions before we can work, write, create, or perform any sort of task.

This is the real world. There is no such thing as ‘no distractions’.

We have children, colleagues, emails, mobile phones, day dreams, open plan offices, the Internet. We can’t all retreat to our mountain lodge with only ourselves and the bare essentials.

We must learn to focus through the din.

Now, after I’ve dealt with crying children and wiping water off the floor, the TV show has changed to Little Einsteins. At least the cat has moved to the other couch.

Keeping your focus is difficult. When disturbed, you have to try keep your train of thought until you return to your task. Sometimes it is possible, sometimes not.

But what if your rhythm is a broken rhythm?

Accept the fact that there are forever going to be distractions. You will remain a lot calmer when distractions do occur, and regain your rhythm quicker. Not accepting it causes you to increase your irritation each time you are distracted. Your stress level increases. And with that, it becomes harder to focus.

Go with the flow. Take it as it comes. Be flexible.

My eldest son is now leaning on my shoulder, fidgeting, moving, talking to the T.V., as well as providing a blow by blow account of what is happening (to nobody in particular).

Split your focus between your task and what is happening around you. The distractions will ebb and flow like the tide. As the distractions lessen, apply more focus to your task. As they increase, become more open to the changing situation.

At home, it is difficult to apply the split focus as young children tend to demand more attention. But it is possible, with a lot of practice and patience – especially patience.

Managing distraction at the office is a different kettle of fish. I can usually focus more on the task at hand, and phase out the background noise. In a way, the office is a lot easier, as the distractions don’t require your immediate attention – unlike young children.

The trouble in the workplace is providing attention to people who tap you on the shoulder, phone calls, and emails. Similar to home, you must learn to temporarily store your train of thought while your focus is diverted elsewhere. This can be a troublesome task. Constantly switching channels between the task at hand, meetings, or interruptions.

Let me carry on while my son wipes his nose on my shirt, and the other scoots around the room.

The way to retain your task status mentally is to have ‘checkpoints’ while you are busy with the task. Simple mental pointers such as ‘I finished the section on resource forecasting’, or ‘all I have left in this statement of work are the financials’, or ‘I stated the history behind the situation, now I must explain to Jerry what I need’.

Mental checkpoints will help you remember where you were before you were distracted. All you need is a pointer, a single reminder, and you will remember how far you got. Your brain is smart that way.

I’ve just had to break up a bickering session between the kids, advising them what sharing is, and how to do it. One tantrum by the youngest, and one sulking session by the eldest.

How to work with distractions:

  • Accept the fact that there will be distractions.
  • Be adaptable and flexible.
  • Be aware of what is happening around you. Apply focus when distractions are low.
  • Have consistent mental checkpoints while busy with your task.

Distractions are a pain in the ass. Accept the fact you will have them, and your day will be so much more productive.

And after all is said and done, both boys are with me on the couch, where they are receiving some parental love. Time for me to go onto my next task – some rough and tumble with my boys. And I’ve accepted the fact there will be distractions…

[image: Craig Garner]

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