Hurry Up and Slow Down: How to Focus on what Matters in your Life

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The world is moving fast and it’s only getting faster. So much technology. So much information. So much to understand, to think about, to react to. A friend of mine recently took a new job as the head of learning and development at a mid-sized investment bank. When she came to work her first day on the job she turned on her computer, logged in with the password they had given her, and found 385 messages already waiting for her.

So we try to speed up to match the pace of the action around us. We stay up until 3 am trying to answer all our emails. We twitter, we facebook, and we link-in. We scan news websites wanting to make sure we stay up to date on the latest updates. And we salivate each time we hear the beep or vibration of a new text message.

But that’s a mistake. The speed with which information hurtles towards us is unavoidable (and it’s getting worse). But trying to catch it all is counterproductive. The faster the waves come, the more deliberately we need to navigate. Otherwise we’ll get tossed around like so many particles of sand, scattered to oblivion. Never before has it been so important to be grounded and intentional and to know what’s important.

Never before has it been so important to say “No.” No, I’m not going to read that article. No, I’m not going to read that email. No, I’m not going to take that phone call. No, I’m not going to sit through that meeting.

It’s hard to do because maybe, just maybe, that next piece of information will be the key to our success. But our success actually hinges on the opposite: on our willingness to risk missing some information. Because trying to focus on it all is a risk in itself. We’ll exhaust ourselves. We’ll get confused, nervous, and irritable.

A study of car accidents by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute put cameras in cars to see what happens right before an accident. They found that in 80% of crashes the driver was distracted during the three seconds preceding the incident. In other words, they lost focus — dialed their cell phones, changed the station on the radio, took a bite of a sandwich, maybe checked a text — and didn’t notice that something changed in the world around them. Then they crashed.

The world is changing fast and if we don’t stay focused on the road ahead, resisting the distractions that, while tempting, are, well, distracting, then we increase the chances of a crash.

Now is a good time to pause, prioritize, and focus. Make two lists:

List 1: Your Focus List (the road ahead). What are you trying to achieve? What makes you happy? What’s important to you? Design your time around those things. Because time is your one limited resource and no matter how hard you try you can’t work 25/8.

List 2: Your Ignore List (the distrations). To succeed in using your time wisely, you have to ask equally important but often avoided complementary questions: what are you willing not to achieve? What doesn’t make you happy? What’s not important to you? What gets in the way?

Some people already have the first list. Very few have the second. But given how easily we get distracted and how many distractions we have these days, the second is more important than ever. The leaders who will continue to thrive in the future know the answers to these questions and each time there’s a demand on their attention they ask whether it will further their focus or dilute it.                                                                                                                       

Excerpt by Peter Bregman via Harvard Business Review, to see his full article click here; Peter Bregman is a strategic advisor to CEOs and their leadership teams. His latest book is 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done. To receive an email when he posts at HBR, click here)

The past three years, I spent my fair share of time searching for “what’s next” in life. At the same time, I invested a lot of effort in practicing presence and mindfulness and enjoying the unknown. Because I was always attached to figuring out my future, I was never able to fully ground myself or to focus on what was next, because I was trying to live in both worlds.  As noted in Peter’s article above, we can only look in one direction a time, otherwise we risk the crash, and we risk being counterproductive and scattered to oblivion–which is never fun.

I always thought once I figured out my work situation or “my future” that being grounded and focused would come easier. And luckily, a month ago I found a job that fulfills my basic needs for survival and life purpose, so now I can easily focus the remaining attention I have on grounding and being more intentional about life, right? Wrong. While I am definitely more sensitive in recognizing what I want to do in life, focusing on what I want to do has almost been harder, because remaining focused after a long day’s work is tough when you are exhausted–which brings me to why I connect with Peter’s message.

His excerpt brings up the importance of looking at the whole glass in life–not just whether it’s half empty or half full–and not just at what we want to look at. His words remind me of how being whole and approaching life with a holistic perspective can actually help develop those laser-focused beams that we often find ourselves seeking.

I spend a lot of time trying to focus on what I intend to do in life. But like Peter said, rarely do I pay attention to the things that I need to cut out or ignore. This article challenges me to to really look at the whole picture–both the positive and negative spaces of its form. We often forget that negative space contributes to and plays a vital part in the work of art we call life. I look forward to exploring the negative spaces of my own life’s composition to discover how I can impact myself and my communities in a positive way.

Another activity: Take a blank sheet of paper and draw a circle. Inside the circle write down the activities you do that take up the most of your time, outside the circle write down activities/people/things that are the most important to you in life. Then take an inventory of the whole picture. Are you spending time on what you aspire to do? Are many of the activities you find important in the center of your circle or are they only on the outside? Look hard at the inside the circle. Are you focusing on the right things? How you can you better use your time?


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2 responses »

  1. I’ve definitely noticed the increasing importance of filtering information more effectively. I enjoyed the way you tied together the ideas of focus, time management, and goals. Great work!

    • Thanks for commenting and thanks for reading. It’s connecting with (and hearing from) people like you that make being part of the blogging community so worthwhile. I’m glad this post made it on your “focus” list. I cannot take much credit here–Peter Bregman truly takes the cake on this one.

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