We live in a fast paced world.
Every day we try to get our jobs done, all the while being bombarded with information and stimulus that has been specifically designed to fragment our attention. Whether it be personal projects or professional, studies show that it is becoming increasingly harder to concentrate while constantly task switching, and that information learned while partially distracted is quickly forgotten. That will make it especially difficult to work on your Most Valuable Tasks (MVT).
Even as I write this, early at the kitchen table while the rest of the house sleeps, there are a number of open loops distracting me. Two massive reports need to get to my client right away, and one of those hasn’t even been started yet. It’s just a pile of screenshots and handwritten notes at this point. Plus, there is the need to write this as I’m only two days from my deadline. It can quickly become overwhelming if you don’t have tools to deal with it.
Companies are actively working to distract us; to fragment our attention and leave us open to suggestion. And society is going along with it for the most part. There is enormous social pressure to do what everyone else is doing, be that the latest social app, fidget spinners, or pet rocks. It keeps getting faster and bigger, to the point where the children of this generation will grow up in a world that looks nothing like the one we grew up in.
Texting and driving is a good example. You might be surprised to know that adults are more likely to do so than young drivers; although their usage behind the wheel increases as they gain experience. Unfortunately this has also become the greatest killer on the road, with over 3,000 deaths per year as a result.
I’ve been writing on these topics for almost two years now and thinking about them for much longer than that. What I’ve come to realize is that while many of the skills and techniques discussed can be good tools when applied appropriately, there are two meta-skills that should be mastered first. Doing so will make the others that much more powerful.
The two skills are Consistency and Focus.
Why these two?
Look at your cellphone and swipe through the home pages. It is probably full of different applications that you’ve downloaded at some point. How many of those are being used daily? Chances are that you use a few of them often, while others may have been tried once then forgotten about.
Self-development is like that. Think of techniques such as Active Listening like apps. You download the documentation and try them out, but unless it becomes your daily habit to open that app you’ll never make full use of it.
Consistency and focus are like the operating system those apps run on. You always need those programs running in the background, no matter if you are learning a new language, or writing a book. Without them those efforts will eventually fall into the clutter of unused apps on your home screen.
The Myth of Discipline
Here is the thing about discipline; it is only habits that are repeated consistently. We may look at somebody who publishes a book every year, or has six pack abs, and think they must have more discipline then us. But the fact is that they have just developed habits that move them towards their goals, then be guided by them daily. The longer a habit is applied the easier it becomes.
John Grisham is one of the worlds best selling authors. He accomplishes this working only 15hrs a week, writing for 3 months every year. But he writes with focus and consistency.
Willpower is a finite resource that is heavily impacted by external inputs such as the time of day, or your blood sugar levels. The trick is to design your environment for success while your willpower is high. Throw out the cookies. Put your running shoes right beside the bed. Make execution of your new habit the easiest option.
Work the System
In order to improve at something, you need to do it over and over again. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell postulated the 10,000 hour rule; the idea being that it takes a large investment of time to truly master a skill. But you can’t just go through the motions, punch your time and expect things to work out. You need to perform those repetitions with intense focus.
(There is an interesting counterpoint to Gladwells 10,000hr theory discussing domain dependency, by Frans Johansson in his book The Click Moment. The argument is that focused study only predicts success in fields that have stable structures; where the rules don’t change. Think chess, or classical music.)
Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent. If you only bring 70% of your focus to bear on a task, you’ll never get more than that out of it. It leads to average results at best. More than that, you’ll take longer to complete tasks than needed. But If you focus with full power on the task at hand you’ll learn quicker, perform better, and finish sooner. It is like sunlight; feel nice on a summer day, but concentrated under a magnifying glass and it will start fires.
Build Your Toolbox
Developing the twin powers of consistency and focus is achievable by anyone, and can be applied to any task, goal, or habit. And when you consciously work towards improving your focus and consistency, an amazing thing happens.
You get more done.
In the next two articles’ we will look at each of these in turn, and figure out how to best apply these skills into our daily lives.