The challenges of focus

Today was one of those days that I really dislike. I woke up at 5AM with a horrible pit in my stomach – the one that usually warns me that I either a) forgot to do something really critical, or b) had something ominous about to happen.

In the past I used to obsess about that feeling and would get so distracted that my day would go to hell. The problem with obsessing is that every little problem DOES become the ominous thing that I worried about. The stress begat more stress until I really did create or have a problem. Over time I’ve come to realize that the feeling is just the manifestation of being over-extended and it’s my brain and my body telling me that I’ve got too many balls in the air. I’ve fairly recently learned a little trick that I’ve used to help me get through days like today and, as I write this at 6:30PM, it’s proven to work once again.

I learned this trick from Jack Groeppel, who is the author of a great book, The Corporate Athlete, at a class he taught at Kellogg School of Management. What Jack pointed out was that humans are not really true ‘multitaskers’ and that we need to focus on doing one thing really well at a time.

What I do to get through days and feelings like today is that I concentrate on a single task at a time and push myself to fully concentrate on that task until it’s done and I move to the next one. When I get a phone call I turn away from the computer and focus on the call. When I’m working on a mail I focus on the mail and don’t get on the phone or respond to other mails that come up. What this does is reset me to focus AND it actually makes the tasks that I’m doing go better. With the single exception today that I forgot my computer on my desk when I left for the airport I had an extremely productive and positive day and the funk went away.

It’s not enough to casually say that you want to focus on a task at a time, to make this trick work you have to push yourself to concentrate on the task and ignore everything else. For me this removes the obsessive behaviors and allows me to stop worrying. It’s proven to be a fantastic trick and I give kudos to Jack for his great class!

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