You’re busy. I’m busy. Everyone is busy. Yet, despite all this bustle, we often don’t feel particularly productive from day to day. Whole weeks can flash by in a blur of relatively meaningless emails, meetings, and admin tasks while the “big stuff” goes untended. As the 19th-century thinker Henry David Thoreau wrote, “It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”If we want to take back control of our workday schedules and priorities, the only way to do it is by relentlessly questioning how we’re spending our time.
But what questions should we ask?
What are you doing in this moment?
The simple act of becoming more aware of where your attention is helps you to focus it where you want it to be – on creating something great. Too often we get distracted or get caught in unimportant tasks – coming back to the moment often will help.
Are you scheduling time daily to focus without interruption?
Set aside at least one time period during the day – no more than 90 minutes at a time (and as close to that as possible) – to focus without interruption. Time, in other words, to do something important but not urgent – to write something, reflect, strategize, imagine, work on a longer term project.
The key here is control of attention. We’re so distracted, and we’re feeding that instinct every time we move between tasks. We need to (re)train our attention. Focused attention can serve tasks – that’s the left hemisphere at work, doing rational, deductive, logical, step-by-step thinking.
What’s the ONE BIG THING you want to accomplish today?
The big danger for hyperconnected creative professionals is that incoming demands and digital distractions get in the way of real productivity – i.e. making inroads on your big, scary, difficult, and (ultimately) rewarding creative challenges.
If you do ONE BIG THING today – one draft design, one chapter, one photoshoot, one intensive rehearsal – it feels like a productive day. (Two or more is for superheroes.) But if you don’t nail that one thing, it doesn’t matter how many little jobs you get done, you know in your heart it was a wasted day.
Asking yourself this question first thing helps you focus and prioritize. After that, the only things that can get in your way are emergencies and excuses.
What is your training regime for increasing your ability to focus hard on something without distraction?
This “hard focus” is at the core of completing outstanding work in a compact amount of time – be it a book or problem set. Hard focus, however, is also a muscle that requires training to develop. (When helping students with this ability, for example, I have them start with 20-minute blocks of undistracted work, and then add 10 minutes every two weeks.)
To ignore this muscle, and continue to work with your email open and Facebook refreshing, thinking up excuse after excuse why this connection is “crucial” for your job, makes you like the wannabe athlete who refuses to hit the weight room. You’re not a contender.
Over To You
How do you manage your energy day-to-day? Any great questions you think we should ask ourselves?