Focus: Are you paying attention?

Focus on you task
Focus on your task

“Are you paying attention?!”

Do you remember a teacher asking you that when you were at school? The same question can be applied to your project. Almost as important: “are you allowing yourself to pay attention?”

The work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests that we are at our most productive when we experience a state he calls “Flow”.

What we need for “Flow” and what “Flow” gives us?

“Flow” is also known as “being in the zone”.

There are some requirements for achieving this state:

  • We have to be able to give the task we are working on our full attention – we have to be able to “lose ourselves in our work”.
  • The task has to be within our capabilities.
  • The task must stretch us, but just the right amount.

Csikszentmihalyi  proposes that achieving “Flow” gives us some real benefits:

  • By doing something which is stretching us, in a sense we are being our most productive.
  • The Flow state itself is pleasurable and therefore our work becomes its own reward!

Focus helps us find “Flow” in our work and projects:

The idea of “Flow” has some implications for those of us who manage projects, those who are “workers” and those (like me) who do both.

  • People are most effective when they are allowed to concentrate on one thing. Multi-tasking makes people less efficient.
  • The “Flow state” is fleeting and takes time to achieve. Interruptions and distractions make it harder to achieve.

Both of these have implications for the working environment and project organisation.

  • Work should stretch people.
  • As they get better at performing a task, then they should be assigned progressively more challenging work.

These points mean that the choice of who is performing a task is significant, both for the project and for the person.

Where do you start?

A good place to start is with yourself. Begin by arranging your work so that you create opportunities to focus – to concentrate on one task at a time and experience Flow.

Do this by “time-boxing”. Set aside time specifically for the task and eliminate distractions and interruption. Find a way of doing this which works for you.

Eliminating interruptions need not mean being uncommunicative. Communication works best when you give it your full attention. People appreciate it when they see they are the focus of your attention.

Try it! Focus and go with the flow!

Priorities: Important versus Urgent

Recently, an acquaintance sent me a note in which he referred to “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R. Covey. One habit he thought was particularly useful was: “Doing ‘Important, Non-Urgent’ things ahead of ‘Non-important, Urgent’ things”. This prompted me to think more about this suggestion. I think it is a good one, and it appears in different guises in different places.

We are all guilty of doing the “urgent” but ignoring the “important”.

Different people live their lives in different ways. Some people, procrastinate to such a degree that they never do anything, important or un-important, until it has become extremely (maybe even, frighteningly, urgent). Then, galvanised by fear, they race  to complete whatever it is. Once they have done the task they heave a sigh of relief and subside into inactivity again, until the next crisis. These poor souls exist in states of worry (about what they should be doing), fear (about what they haven’t done), and exhaustion (having forced themselves to do it). Very rarely do they enjoy peace, or the satisfaction of a job well done. I do not recommend this as a way of living.

The difference between “Important” and “Urgent” is crucial. Importance may come from within, or without. Most urgency comes from the outside. It is important to establish ones own priorities. We may not always get our way and we may sometimes choose to do things which we do not consider important, but if we have priorities, we can always return to them.

A final thought is to look for activities which create more options for the future. Which make us stronger, which allow us to deal with everyday tasks more effectively and allow us more energy and time to deal with the important things.

A thought: Don’t hoard negative emotions

Have you ever thought of your mind as being like the boot of your car?

You must have been told from time to time to clear out the boot of your car, because the weight you carry around in there costs you money in fuel that you burn to no purpose. I don’t mean the weight of the atlas, or the car-jack, or the spare tyre (which after all, you might need), but: the half of a pair of trainers, the discarded wrapping, the stuff you were taking to the dump but got distracted by something else.

Now think about your mind. What are you carrying around that you don’t need? Not factual memory: that doesn’t weight much, no more that a note in the atlas “I was in ‘Somewhere-or-another’ in June 2012”; or the positive memories, which are more like fuel than dead-weight; but the negative emotions.

Even if you feel you are fully in control of yourself, wouldn’t it be more “fuel efficient” to leave some of the junk behind?

Part of a New Year’s resolution achieved – That’s satisfying!

The last year has been very disrupted for me. I changed (or lost) as job and have moved house (country). As a result of “the move” I still have lots of possessions (mostly books and papers) in storage boxes. This in itself is not really a bad thing, but it has created an opportunity for me to put-off some administrative work that I really should have done.

At the same time, I’ve taken up improving my Russian. I already had a number of textbooks, and I found (or rather didn’t find) that the Russian-English dicitionary I wanted was in one of the boxes I had not unpacked. In a funny indirect way, that was the trigger for me to start sorting out the accumulated admin work.

Once I had started I found the task, that I had probably been avoiding, went more quickly and more easilly than I had been expecting. The apparent volume of the papers shrunk when I removed the envelopes and unfolded the papers. The actual sorting took relatively little time.

It was at this point that a little serendipity crept in. I went to the computer to print out the manifest which lists the contents of all the boxes (in a basic sort of way) and noticed that one of the three boxes standing next to it said “Russian” on the label. Sure enough, the Russian dictionary was in there! I printed the manifest anyway, I expect I’ll need it in the next few days.

None of this was a “New Year’s Resolution”, but it was all on my “List of things to do”. All in all quite satisfactory!