Narrowing Focus to What's Essential

Published: 2022-12-19

I just posted about how what we focus on determines our reality and wanted to expand on it a bit more and talk about distractions. Our attention and time must be protected at all costs because we live in the attention economy. It is quite literally currency of our era.

Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp, stated that "I can't stress this enough - protect your attention like you protect your friends, family, money, etc. It's among the most valuable things you have." He also said in the same article emphasizing the importance of "Saying no. Techniques and hacks are all about managing what happens when you say yes to too many things. All the techniques and hacks in the world never add up to the power of no. Having fewer things to do is the best way to get things done. I'm very careful with my time and attention - it's my most precious resource. If you don't have that, you can't do what you want to do. And if you can't do what you want to do, what's the point?"

This is something I've learned (and regularly have had to relearn) in both my professional and personal life. Despite what you think, you're really not great at multitasking. Humans can only focus on one thing at a time. For example, you're not going to absorb much, if any, of the information of an audiobook you're listening to while you're driving through traffic or reading your email. And I'm sure many of us have had the experience of trying to do knock out some tasks during a conference call, only to be called on and having no idea what was being asked of us.

In a world of endless distractions, being able to focus on a single task for an extended period is a seriously valuable skill. This means knowing how to manage distractions. Disabling notifications on your phone and computer and only checking messages and email every couple of hours is a great method. Reducing the amount of screens in your space is another. Last year I went from a dual screen setup to a single screen setup (occasionally reverting to two since I have to open my laptop for video conferences). It's unnecessary and counterproductive, especially when you have a decently sized 27" display (and sometimes I wonder if even that might be too big). In my experience, what would often happen is that I'd have information up on one screen and something totally irrelevant to what I was doing at that moment on the second screen. Or maybe it's having our attention pulled into a direction we didn't intend, which is often the case when visiting social media and streaming sites where they do everything they can to keep you on their website. In these cases, an aggressive adblocker or avoiding social media entirely can help. But having our attention held captive can just as easily occur in a work environment as well.

Last summer I read Essentialism by Greg McKeown. Although I almost stopped reading when I realized it was geared more toward the stereotypical office worker, I do think that it's applicable to a wide variety of things in our personal lives as well as professional. "Essentialism" as defined by McKeown is that rather than reducing the physical distractions in your life, we ought to strive toward reducing mental clutter such as obligations and unnecessary time constraints. Reducing the amount of work, tasks, meetings, etc throughout your day to focus on what's really important - in this case actual meaningful work. We shouldn't be spinning our wheels trying to get everything done, nor should we attempt to get less stuff done, but rather we should focus on the right things that need to be done.

In regards to personal life, Derek Sivers writes about what he refers to as Pets (a great post worth a read). I wrote down a list of all my "hobbies" and realized I couldn't possibly give all of these the attention they deserved so I had to simply let some go. Sometimes these things weren't really hobbies, but things that I wanted to become a hobby that I'd do regularly and get good at, but as the saying goes "a jack of all trades is a master of none".

I think that the things we decide to direct our attention on is important, but knowing how to protect that focus from the distractions of the world is equally as important.

If you seek tranquility, do less. Or, more accurately, do what's essential. If you can eliminate it, you'll have more tranquility.
- Marcus Aurelius, Mediations. Book 4.24

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