Finding Focus: Becoming Effective in a Distracted World

Brazilian Heart Surgeon Randas Batista on his ranch in Curitiba, Brazil. Photo by Jeffrey Luke

Brazilian Heart Surgeon Randas Batista on his ranch in Curitiba, Brazil. Photo by Jeffrey Luke

"Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."                    

                                                   - Steve Jobs

Lately I have been thinking about ways to make our lives really great. I believe that often we get in our own way sometimes when it comes to creating art, music, products, companies or messages to share with other people. In Steven Pressfield's book The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles, he discusses the fear that keeps us from becoming the best versions of ourselves.

"Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do," Pressfield says.

Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it. 

Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That's why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there'd be no Resistance.” 

In my own photography lately I have seen a problem pop up. When I was a film photographer, before the age of the Internet, I was better at focusing on doing just one thing at a time. Honestly, life was simpler then and there were fewer distractions. We didn't have cell phones or personal computers, so you could actually immerse yourself in a project for hours without distraction. 

Get Focused

When Bill Gates and Warren Buffett first met, Bill Gates' father had them (and about 20 other people) write down on a sheet of paper one word that they thought accounted for their success.

Reflecting on that occasion, Buffett said, "Bill and I - may have only met twice - didn't know what the other was writing down - we both wrote down the same word, which was 'focus.' And he was focused on software, and I was focused on investments. And it gave me a big advantage to start very young...there's no question about it."

The fast pace of technological innovation inundates us with email, texts, notifications and phone calls every day. I would guess (depending on your job and the modalities you use) that you get 50 different notifications sent your way every day. If you use Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Periscope or YouTube you probably get between 100 and 300 notifications a day. These things aim to derail your focus from meaningful, effective work -- not what you might do for a paycheck, but your personal work that matters, that nobody else can do because of your unique artistic skills, talents, or the knack you have for doing something better than other people. No matter who you are, you are probably really good at something - much better than your peers. Even if you're modest, there is an area where you excel.

"None of us are born as passive generic blobs waiting for the world to stamp its imprint on us," Pressfield said. "Instead we show up possessing already a highly refined and individuated soul.

"Another way of thinking of it is: We're not born with unlimited choices.

"We can't be anything we want to be.

"We come into this world with a specific, personal destiny. We have a job to do, a calling to enact, a self to become. We are who we are from the cradle, and we're stuck with it.

"Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it," he said.

The problem I see - and I think the book The One Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan solves - is that we get distracted and try to do many things (aka multitasking) and don't do any of them very well. I am as guilty of this as well as anyone. I have had entire weeks pass this year where I couldn't tell you what I got done. I just took care of the todo lists every day until I survived the day, relaxed at bit in the evening, and then tackled the deluge again. The problem is that I did not accomplish anything artistic, beautiful or remarkable. If you do that for too many years then you can lead an unproductive life. It's not like you're pulling down the human race, but you're not helping it as you might if you made your contribution.

Let me get to the essence of what lies at the heart of this problem. It comes down to two words that we all see or use from time to time: efficient and effective. Think for a moment - can you clearly state the distinction? I could not, so I looked it up and it's beautifully simple: Efficient means doing things the right way, and effective means doing the right things.

What is being efficient?

Being efficient means doing things the right way. If you are efficient about everything you could wind up doing things like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. You want to make sure that you are efficient where it matters, and not waste time being efficient when you should focus on being effective. I think many people crave efficiency, and it has its place in business, car engineering, traffic planning and other areas where intelligent processes and systems save time and energy. And in your personal life, if you have to drive across town to get groceries and go to the bank, it's great if you can remember to go to the hardware store that's located in-between the two rather than have to make another trip because you forgot the hammer. We try to eliminate inefficiency in our own lives for good reason. 

Yet I find myself perfecting the stupidest things from day to day. I can rationalize why I need to spend so much time on certain tasks, but if I'm completely honest with myself I didn't need to spend as much time using my iPhone, even if the apps are somehow useful. I really don't need to be on the iPhone for more than one or two hours a day. But I know (based on my battery constantly needing a charge) that I use that phone a lot. It's entertaining. It's fun. It's crack. But it's not making my life much better (it is fun and it makes me efficient in some ways) in a major way. It keeps me on task, it makes sure I respond to every text, every email, every calendar alert...all the things I have to do every day to be super efficient.

What is being effective?

Being effective means doing the right things. To be effective you need to develop an inner compass that points you in the right direction for your own good, and also an inner alarm clock that warns you when you are about to waste time doing something pointless and distracting.

Consider those people you admire who have achieved some degree of success on a large scale. I'll mention a few of my favorites right here. Some have amazing talents from birth and some of them have worked hard to improve their skills: Ariana Grande's voice, or Roger Federer's forehand, Lindsey Vonn's downhill skiing, Step Curry's jumper, Will Smith's acting, Steve Job's iPhone, Arnold Newman, Gregory Heisler and Dan Winter's photography. Now let's think about their accomplishments and how they became so amazing. Think of the time invested in their training, learning and practice. Think of the thousands of temptations and distractions that they encountered and ignored so they could persist on mastering their skills and honing talents.

These people are some of the most effective on the planet. They are so clear on who they are and what they need to do right now to be better tomorrow. They know their weaknesses and work to strengthen them.

Here is something to remember when it comes to doing things today (and every day). I got this tip from the book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and it's the third of the most important three "take home" message from reading that book: Make sure you do the important low urgency stuff, because that's the stuff you're most likely to neglect. Think about that. Your day to day life is probably full of stuff that's sapping your time putting out fires, responding to texts and emails and alerts. Whenever you do that you ignore the important things like creating that stunning work of art, composing that song, writing your book, learning to play piano, making that short film you've dreamed about.

Pressfield said, "The most pernicious aspect of procrastination is that it can become a habit. We don't just put off our lives today; we put them off till our deathbed."

Let me show you a cool screenshot that will help you focus: If you check out the image below you'll see the crescent moon. It's the "Do Not Disturb" mode on the iPhone. No matter what phone you may use, there is a way to silence it, whether by using do not disturb, airplane mode or just turning the phone off.

Screenshot from iPhone shows the "Do not disturb" crescent moon icon. If you really want to get work done, just tap this icon or the "Airplane Mode" icon. If you have a different kind of phone just find the relevant mode to shut off alerts...or just power down / turn off your phone.

Screenshot from iPhone shows the "Do not disturb" crescent moon icon. If you really want to get work done, just tap this icon or the "Airplane Mode" icon. If you have a different kind of phone just find the relevant mode to shut off alerts...or just power down / turn off your phone.

Don't Sleepwalk Through Life

I saw a tweet recently by Donald J. Trump that said: "Don't take vacations. What's the point? If you're not enjoying your work, you're in the wrong job." -- Think Like A Billionaire.

This same kind of thinking was mirrored by Warren Buffett who said, "I absolutely advise students - I had 160 students last week, 160 of them from Harvard, South Dakota State - I just tell them, try to find your passion - I mean, you may not find it the first time, but don't sleepwalk through life, find something that you really enjoy doing if you can do it, and not everyone is lucky enough to be able to find that, but it ought to be your goal. To make $10 a week more doing something that you don't feel good about, compared to something you do feel good about - make the change."

Maximus the Husky, just before his 4th birthday on the banks of Lake Washington in Seattle. Photo by Jefffey Luke.

Maximus the Husky, just before his 4th birthday on the banks of Lake Washington in Seattle. Photo by Jefffey Luke.

My advice - if you're not sure yet what you want to do with your life, or if you haven't found your passion yet, is to think about what you love to do most. What would you do if you were the last person left on earth?

Bill Gates made this observation: "The thing you do obsessively between age 13 and 18, that's the thing you have the most chance of being world class at."

   Bill Gates suggests that you think back to your teenage years to identify your true obsessions and figure out the area where you're likely to be "world class."

 

Bill Gates suggests that you think back to your teenage years to identify your true obsessions and figure out the area where you're likely to be "world class."

In closing I'd like to leave you with a passage from the Pressfield's book, because I feel it really captures the essence of ridding our lives of distractions, fears, and the tendency to be efficient instead of being effective. Pressfield's plea to any creative person is to do *the right thing*, whatever that thing is to you.

"Are you a born writer? Were you put on earth to be a painter, a scientist, an apostle of peace? In the end the question can only be answered by action.

Do it or don't do it.

It may help to think of it this way. If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don't do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself. You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.

You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God.

Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It's a gift to the world and every being in it. Don't cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you've got.” 

Jeff LukeComment