Podcast 093: Being focused

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This is Podcast 93 and it’s about being focused. Last time I talked about being present. This time, right now, is all that you have. This time I’ll talk about being focused and utilizing that present time.

The kind of focus I mean is related to being present. It isn’t hyperfocus, where the house can be burning down around you and you’re so involved in what you’re doing that you don’t even notice. This may seem like an ideal condition to be in when there’s a task you need to finish.

But hyperfocus usually goes hand in hand with distractibility and stimulation seeking and those are at odds with being present. It also isn’t activated by tasks that don’t seem exciting, so it’s not effective for getting routine work done.

The focus I’m talking about is one flexible enough to remain engaged in the face of distractions. Not to filter them out, like hyperfocus, but to acknowledge them without getting sucked in. Or to indulge them in a limited way, and then return to the object of focus.

If that sounds like a big challenge, you’re right, it is. Humans naturally seek stimulation. We evolved to seek food, mates and shelter, to begin with. Seeking is likely also related to the reasons we explore, discover and learn. We want to expand our worlds.

Unfortunately, seeking behavior can lead us to desire more and more stimulation, past the point where our basic needs are met. The thrill of new sensations and an ever faster pace makes us feel that every day life, in contrast, is a bit boring.

We are also primed to be alert to novelty, again dating back to prehistory when we needed to be aware of changes in our environment that could be dangerous and then react to them quickly. Those two ancient responsibilities of your brain continue to be active; sometimes in not-so-productive ways.

Even if you have not been diagnosed with ADHD you’re subject to more stimulation every day than you can handle. So you need to have ways to manage stimulation in order to get things done, since it’s unlikely that stimulating events and things will go away on their own.

Being mindful, as I mentioned last time, is a good practice to help you slow down and be aware of yourself in the present moment. Meditation is a classic way to increase mindfulness, but you can do this at any moment just by bringing your attention to what is happening right now.

If you tend to hyperfocus, remembering to let the present moment in may be hard to do. But there are tools you can use. A simple one is to set a timer to go off at regular intervals, say 15-30 minutes. Make sure to use a timer that has a pleasant sound so it doesn’t startle you. Timed reminders for activities, like having lunch, are also helpful.

How do you know if you’re hyperfocusing? If you’re spending an inordinate amount of time on something that’s not necessary but you feel unable to break away, that’s hyperfocus. Anytime that you haven’t made a conscious decision to continue your focus, that’s hyperfocus.

The opposite of hyperfocus is hypo-focus. Instead of too much, you’ve got too little. It’s hard to get things done because your attention wanders away so quickly. Hypofocusers tend to daydream a lot.

Using timers and other reminders helps with this too. Instead of using them to break out of hyperfocus, you use them to remind yourself to refocus. Use physical distractions to capture your attention enough to stay focused. Doodling or squeezing a ball can help.

A physical distraction should occupy your hands but not your vision or hearing, or you’ll probably not be able to concentrate on anything else. If you’re a visual learner, a ball is better than a drawing you need to look at.

What you can do now: try one of the methods here to increase your focus. As usual, you may have to try a few to see what works best for you.

Help from the Procrastination Research Group

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Yes, this group really exists!

On the web I discovered a site for the Procrastination Research Group. One researcher has identified five “cognitive distortions,” which are

  1. overestimation of time left to perform tasks, 
  2. underestimation of time required to complete tasks, 
  3. overestimation of future motivational states, 
  4. misreliance on the necessity of emotional congruence to succeed at task, and 
  5. belief that working when not in the mood to work is suboptimal.

The first two are pretty commonly known. The remaining three were a bit surprising to me, especially the last one. Although I intuitively knew them, I’ve never seen them spelled out so clearly.  

Number three refers to putting things off with the belief that you’ll be in the mood to do them later. This presupposes that the obstacles currently in your way—being tired, distracted, depressed, overwhelmed—will be gone in time for you to complete the work. 

Number four elaborates on that concept by asserting that you don’t really have to be perky, focused, happy and carefree to get work done, and the last point says that the work you do can be good work even when you’re not up for it.  

It’s common to have a romantic hope that the muse of report writing, sales calling, house cleaning, sculpting or tax preparing will descend on you and will cause you to happily devote your energies to the appointed task and emerge with a masterpiece.  

But let’s be realistic. For one thing, most great artists and other accomplished folk didn’t sit around waiting for inspiration, they just got down to business. Hard-working Thomas Edison said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”  

Here are some strategies from the same website for handling procrastination: 

  1. Make a list of everything you have to do. 
  2. Write an intention statement. 
  3. Set realistic goals. 
  4. Break it down. 
  5. Make your task meaningful.
  6. Promise yourself a reward. 
  7. Eliminate tasks you never plan to do. 
  8. Estimate the amount of time you think it will take you to complete a task, then increase that amount by 100%. 

Again, most of this is pretty self evident. 

The fifth point is one that sometimes escapes our attention and it can help you decrease reliance on being in the mood to get things done. It means remembering why you’re doing something. What is meaningful to one person may not be to another, so you have to find a meaning that will motivate you.  

What’s the reason to write a report? Because it’s due? Because you owe it to the other people working on the project with you? Because you may get a promotion out of it? Because it will advance your standing as an expert in your field?

Any of these can be good reasons, but they need to have meaning for you. If they do, they can help you stay on task and discount your excuses.  

For a more arcane discussion of the relation of feelings to action, I visited the ToDo Institute web site for the following insights

Feelings are uncontrollable directly by the will. You can’t simply make yourself feel what you want to feel. You can’t make yourself fall in love with someone or feel grateful to someone who has just hurt you. You can’t willfully and reliably change your feelings when you’re feeling depressed or lonely.

Feelings can be indirectly influenced by behavior. Though we can’t control our feelings directly by our will, we can often influence them by what we do. Taking action often causes us to feel differently. A lonely person who asks someone out on a date or organizes a dinner party is likely to affect his or her feelings of loneliness. Feelings of depression or lethargy are often influenced by vigorous exercise.

To the last statement I would add that completing a report can change feelings of overwhelm and inadequacy to feelings of accomplishment and validation. The next time you’re faced with a task you want to put off, try substituting your emotional reaction with a meaningful reason to complete it. Or be honest and follow strategy seven: eliminate tasks you never plan to do.

Decisions Move the World

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Diving board I write a lot about decision making. So much of clutter and other stuff that's in your way is the result of not making decisions about it. The pile of needed decisions keeps growing till you just get overwhelmed by it and then the simplest decision seems strenuous. That naturally induces procrastination.

Why decide? Here's why:

  • When you don't decide, others do it for you. Are they going to pick the choice you want? Uh-uh.
  • The longer you wait to decide, the more likely your desired option(s) will expire or otherwise go away
  • When you avoid deciding to keep your options open, you still don't have that thing you want. You just have the option to have it. Would you rather have the daydream or the real thing?
  • When you boldly make decisions, you stir up positive energy. You take action. You move. You pull it off.

Decision making is a skill you can learn. I'm almost ready to publish my new info program about decision making and habit building, where I teach you both those vital skills. So, stay tuned, or drop me a line in the comments. What can I help you with today?

Diving board from vauvau's photostream.

Rename Your Junk Drawer

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It's time to rehabilitate the much-maligned junk drawer. In the unlikely event that you don't have one, this is a drawer, usually in the kitchen, that acts as a catch-all for small items and pieces of other items that you don't have time to put away or don't know where to put.

People are often embarrassed to admit that they have junk drawers, but I say using a drawer for this purpose is a heck of a lot better than letting those doohickeys clutter up the rest of the house. Also, sometimes it doesn't make sense to figure out where else to put something, such as a screw or foot that came off something recently, you just need to remember what.

Many things in the junk drawer really are just junk, or they become junk after a certain amount of time. So, the idea is to rename this receptacle the "ripening drawer." This gives you a way to think about what's in there as green, ripe or rotten. The green items are still waiting to become useful, the ripe ones are useful now, and the rotten ones have lost their usefulness and need to be tossed.

What else goes in a ripening drawer? Semi used batteries, match books (particularly ones with something written on them), take out menus, coupons, business cards, the aforementioned pieces of things that need to be reunited, etc.

Every time you look in there, rummage around and see if you can find some rotten stuff; expired coupons, leaking batteries and parts of things you now realize you've thrown away. This is a good technique if you have a hard time tossing stuff in the moment. Once a little time passes, it's easier to make that decision.

Beautiful fruit from Gilgongo's photostream

Procrastination Strategies

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“Talk of the Nation” did a show about procrastination recently featuring psychology professor Timothy Pychyl and philosophy professor John Perry. I read Perry’s funny article about structured procrastination several years ago and I still laugh every time I read it. Not only that, it’s a good strategy!

A very interesting point that Pychyl brought up is that there’s no evidence of the “arousal procrastinator,” that is, people who work best under pressure and let things wait until the last minute. Arousal types are characterized by extroversion, sensation-seeking and reducing/augmenting behavior (of desired emotional states).

Lots of people believe that they do their best working right up to the deadline but apparently, that’s just an illusion. It can also be learned behavior, if that’s the only way a person has ever approached deadlines.

Another fascinating finding has to do with procrastination and self-forgiveness. A study to discover whether people would procrastinate less the next time if they forgave themselves for the current instance found that, yes, it did work that way.

The unexpected result was that this was much more true for the women in the study. One theory is that “procrastination is related to self-worth or self-esteem for females but not males.” Who knew?

A third interesting point Pychyl made is that all delay is not procrastination. It’s only procrastination when you set an intention to do something by a particular time. So, there’s your loophole…

[photo by ShereenM]

Why I Procrastinate

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Why do I procrastinate? Yes, I do it too! I distinguish between taking personal time and actual procrastination (which is an essential skill for solopreneurs), but procrastination does happen.

Holding hands When I'm procrastinating it's usually because I think I won't do a good job or I think I'll outright fail at something. So, it's fear, mostly. When I'm trying to think of something to write on this blog, I reject lots of ideas because they seem too obvious or I don't think I have anything interesting to say about them.

I don't like to fail or to be wrong. No one does. I have to take myself by the hand and reassure my scared little self that if I don't do anything, that's another way of failing, so why not "just do it"?

What's the worst that could happen?
That people will think I'm stupid and irrelevant. Actually, what's even worse is that no one will pay attention to me! Again, if I don't give them the opportunity to ignore me, I also don't give them the chance to read something that might interest them.

Being more objective about my task helps me. As a professional organizer, it's part of my job to write posts that help people. I do it because it's my job, not because I want people to like me (okay, I do want that, but I can't focus on it). I can't help all of the people all of the time, but I know that some of my ideas are good and will help some people. That's enough.

Other reasons to procrastinate: you prefer thinking up ideas to doing the actual work, you don't want to be controlled by others ("you can't make me!"), you always put the needs of others before your own, or you can't get going until you're in crisis mode.

How do you procrastinate and what do you do about it? I don't think it's possible to completely avoid doing it; just learn to recognize it and fix it. We all need little tricks up our sleeves to get going again.

Hand holding from dino_olivieri's photostream.

Quick Tips for Beating Procrastination

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Steps Got a project that’s bogged down? Finding it hard to get started at all? Here are some ideas:

  • Break your project down into steps. Now, divide the steps into even smaller pieces. Keep dividing until you get to a piece small enough that it seems easy to do. Then do just that piece.
  • Start your project somewhere in the middle or at the end. It can be easier to fill in backwards once you get going. Think of what you know how to do right now.
  • Begin with the part you like best. When you’re really into the project and making good progress, use that motivation to complete the less appealing parts of it as you go along.
  • Have several projects going at once. Procrastination on one can mean progress on another. If you do switch back and forth, make notes about what you’ve done already and what the next step is. That way you can get up to speed quickly the next time you work on the project.
  • Try “structured procrastination.”  Trick yourself by putting tasks that seem to have deadlines and seem very important at the top of the list.  Then allow yourself to procrastinate by doing the other tasks on the list first

Steps from judepics‘s photostream

Where Does Clutter Come From?

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Clutter comes from many sources; a primary one is what we call delayed decision making.

That’s when things pile up because you haven’t made a decision to move them on to their next stop: being put away, thrown away, taken to the cleaners, returned to their owner, tossed in the Goodwill bag, shredded, mailed back or foisted off on someone else.

Work in progress Clutter can also come from projects in progress.

It’s understandable to want to leave everything out until you finish whatever you’re working on, but if you’re working on more than one thing at once and you’ve got the kitchen table, the dining table, your desk and the living room coffee table covered with projects, there’s no room to eat dinner or set down a tea cup.

Here’s how to combat this problem:

  • Make it easy to put things away
  • Get in the habit of putting things away
  • Embrace the idea of completion

Make it easy to put things away by getting a box or special
case (for jewelry making, for example) to keep your project supplies in. Use a
container if the place you work is different from the place you store
the supplies so you can easily carry them back there. Or set aside some
space on a bookshelf or in a drawer in the room you work in to stash
your project.

Get in the habit of putting things away by remembering and visualizing
how you want the space to look when you’re not working. Think of
putting things away as setting them up for your next session.

These techniques make tidying feel like a positive and beneficial activity, rather than a big drag that you want to avoid.

Completion means that even if your project is unfinished, you still put things away after each session of working on it. Don’t rely on seeing your stuff out on the table to remind you to finish. If you’re busy and have several projects going, that kind of reminder just doesn’t work. It often has the opposite effect; to make you feel guilty that you haven’t finished!

For each session there are three steps: get out your supplies, work on the project, put everything away. Don’t stop after step two!

Conquering Perfectionism

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I wrote about perfectionism back in December, but it’s a topic that comes up a lot, with clients and in everyday conversation, so I’m addressing it again.

This time I’m going to quote from a great book about procrastination called It’s About Time by Dr. Linda Sapadin. Perfectionism is one of six ways that she identifies as procrastination styles. The others are dreaming, worrying, defying, crisis making and overdoing.

I won’t go into what makes a perfectionist procrastinate because you probably already know! Instead, I’ll paraphrase what Dr. Sapadin suggests to get over it.

  • Do some creative visualization. Perfectionists are often tense. Use the visualization to show yourself that everything is fine, including you.
  • Realize that the rest of the world can’t live up to your high standards. Then realize that you can’t either, because they’re impossibly high
  • “Strive for excellence rather than perfection.” Focus on excellence and you’ll focus on results. Focus on perfection and you’ll get lost in all the tiny details before you can get to the results.
  • Stay with what’s realistic, not what’s ideal. There are many ways to achieve any result and your choice may be informed by time and resources available. If you’re realistic about that, you can still achieve excellence.
  • Don’t think in terms of “all or nothing.” Life is not a pass/fail course. Give up rigid ways of thinking for more creative possibilities.

See if any of these techniques work for you.

Does a To-Do List Have to be a List?

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Most of us are way too busy to remember all that we need and want to get done. That means it’s important to use a tool of some kind to keep track of it all. The most common one is a to-do list.

What if you hate lists? What if the prospect of making a list fills you with terror? What if your list is so long that you want to go straight back to bed and forget about it?

The good news is, you can use other tools.

To get your list down to a manageable size, divide and rename it. If you have an aversion to doing that intimidating important thing on your list, use a little structured procrastination. If you just don’t want to write a list, draw it instead.

Alexia Petrakos of the Alternating Current wrote today about how to-do lists suck. She’s tried written lists six ways from Sunday and they just don’t work for her. Her solution is to make maps and pictures instead.

I like how she describes the activity of map making and how moving her hand, hearing the sound of the marker (and sometimes the scent), and looking at them on her wall all help her remember and keep track of what she’s doing.

Appealing to multiple senses and learning styles is super effective.

I get the same result from writing my lists over and over again. I’m visual but I’m also wordy. Once I’ve written something, I have a visual memory of where it is on the page and the words I used to describe the task. Sometimes I don’t even need to look at the list again because the act of writing cemented it in my mind.

I never get that sense when I make lists on my computer, so I don’t do that anymore.

If you hate lists, quit making them. Try drawing as Alexia does. Try mind mapping, a specific type of drawing with words and pictures. If a technique doesn’t work for you, dump it and go for another one.

Do you prefer drawing to writing? Have a to-do list horror story to share? Let me know in the comments!