Mental focus is at a premium in an age of distraction.
What really happens to us is that we get trapped in doing all the little things. The little things like responding to email can distract us from the big, difficult, emotionally-draining things. The big things that could change our lives.
In the face of that pressure, checking Twitter is so much easier.
There are some things you can do to combat this inversion of priorities.
1. Create a “Stop Doing” list.
Focus on harnessing and conserving your attention by making a list of activities you will stop doing. This advice comes from Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and the creator ofthe hedgehog concept. Jim says what an entrepreneur decides to stop doing is as important as what’s on her to-do list.
He recounts the following exercise suggested to him by Rochelle Myers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business:
It goes like this: Suppose you woke up tomorrow and received two phone calls. The first phone call tells you that you have inherited $20 million, no strings attached. The second tells you that you have an incurable and terminal disease, and you have no more than 10 years to live. What would you do differently, and, in particular, what would you stop doing?
That assignment became a turning point in my life, and the “stop doing” list became an enduring cornerstone of my annual New Year resolutions — a mechanism for disciplined thought about how to allocate the most precious of all resources: time.
Collins calls this The 20-10 Assignment and it’s a life-changing way to look at how you spend your most valuable commodity.
2. Limit your work-in-progress.
Jim Benson, Agile practitioner and founder of Personal Kanban, argues that you should put limits on how much work-in-progress or WIP you have: “If we focus on a small set of tasks, we concentrate in both senses of the word. We both focus our attention and we concentrate our options.”
Multi-tasking is a myth. What you are really doing when you think you are multi-tasking is switching between activities rapidly. This rapid switching exacts a toll on your ability to mentally focus and concentrate. Too much task-switching leads to cognitive overload.
What you need to do, and what Benson advocates, is radically simplifying your workload. J.D. Meier, author of Getting Results the Agile Way, recommends using The Rule of 3 to focus on 3 outcomes with the biggest impacts each day, each week, each month, and each year.
Having 10 projects going at once might feel like productivity, but in actuality its destroying your focus and concentration.
3. Take time out for reflection.
Are you focusing on the wrong things?
Having priorities assumes you know what your values are. Too many people are living on autopilot, what David Foster Wallace in his commencement speech, This is Water, refers to as natural default settings.
If you aren’t thinking about and consciously making choices, your natural default settings will take over. You’ll wake up in 20 years in the middle of a midlife crisis and not know how you got there. Or how to get out.
We can defeat the natural default settings by training our personal feedback loops. Ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing to figure out what is actually important to you. Remember that your life is literally at stake. If what you’re doing isn’t worth your time, thenopt out.
4. Give yourself permission to fail.
Exercise your action bias by seeking challenges where you can fail fast, fail cheap, andmove on from your failure with lessons learned. There is no better way to supercharge your development than to seek opportunities for failure. You can get stuck in a rut optimizing a bad situation–or you can change the game entirely.
You have a finite amount of time. Do not fill up your life with the unimportant. Mental focus isn’t about what you let into your mind, it’s about what you leave out.