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Using the Calendar to Focus

The ability to focus is one of the most powerful habits that a person can establish. The reason people try so hard to get organized with to-do lists, GTD, etc., is because of the inherent need to free themselves up to focus on something important to accomplish.

There’s a building frustration over the lack of control to focus. We’re pulled in 127 different directions each day, either by others or ourselves. This “MTV world” completely distracts us. The Web is one of the greatest inventions ever, but its paradox is that it’s made us far too distracted by flaunting its links everywhere. Before you know it, you’re sucked into link after link on a never ending path down the rabbit hole into Wonderland.

When I was younger, my friends and I used to play this game where we would have conversations, and after a while we’d realize “how did we get to this topic?”, with one thing leading into another. We’d trace back our conversation, and realize how they became linked. It’s human nature. We’re so easily distracted, like a living Web, and before you’d know it, it’s “six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon.”

We often struggle with focus, requiring conscious effort to regain it in order to get things done. One of the things I started trying recently is making use of the calendar (Outlook at work, and Google Calendar for personal stuff), plugging in specific things to do, even if I don’t have any tasks or meetings scheduled for the time slot. I do this just for the purpose of focusing on a specific task. I’ll work on it during that alloted time, and then give myself permission to move onto another task. I know that David Allen of GTD says we should only put items into the calendar that absolutely, positively must be done at that day or time, but I think my “enhancement” is useful.

One method of structuring this is to intuitively pick a “next action” and plug it into the calendar, so that it’ll break whatever pattern you’re in, reminding you to physically do something that needs complete focus 15 minutes from now. Color code the “musts do” items, and leave these other items white (or use a less “threatening” color), and treat these as “must focus” items. You’re essentially scheduling a meeting with yourself, similar to paying yourself first as part of a monetary budget. Treat it as importantly as your other items. If anything, it will help get you into the habit of focusing on a single item at a time.

Although people take pride in claiming that they can multi-task, it’s a fallacy. Even saying a computer can multi-task is a falsehood. Maybe it seems truer with multi-core processors, but it’s still constantly task switching — nothing is truly done concurrently by a single entity. Humans (uh, other than myself) may be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, but nobody can really do two things that need focus at the same time. Nobody’s really more efficient when multi-tasking, although there may be an illusion that it’s so. You may feel you’re getting more things done, because you’re in constant “busy” mode. It’s just the tyranny of the urgent. You feel like you’re accomplishing multiple things, but you really aren’t.

I’ve read books that claimed that in order to accomplish more, you should physically move faster. That may be great for a kick-start or caffeine replacement, or to get out of a sleepy rut, but it does NOT work in the long run. You’ll make more mistakes, and will have to repeat the task anyway.

Take advantage of your natural born ability to completely focus and get one thing done at a time. All great accomplishment in human history came out of dedicated focus. It may seem that famously successful people like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison accomplished so much by multi-tasking. I say that’s bull — they just mastered the ability to focus on one thing at a time, MANY times each day.

By doing this, the perceptions of the people you work with may be that you’re an amazing multi-tasker, but only you would know the real secret of doing one thing at a time. How often do they really notice what you’re working on? They’ll just think you’re extremely efficient, anyway. People would be amazed by what you accomplish.

Remember, as long as you “capture” everything, you won’t have your mind interrupting you during your focus sessions. I think that one of the biggest deal breakers when trying to focus is when your mind constantly nags yourself to hurry, because you also need to work on something else. It’ll still be there after you’re done, and you will get it done SO MUCH FASTER if you commit to focusing on that single task.

One more trick is to keep calendar items to half hour intervals. Remember — GTD recommends that “next actions” should be granular. So anything that doesn’t fit the two minute rule should still fit into a half hour scheduled time slot. A related tip is that when you do schedule “must focus” items into your calendar, spread them out to where you have at least half hour chunks between any “must” items, so in case you do get interrupted, you’ll at least have the flexibility to stop any “non-must” items you work on during these open slots.

So what are you waiting for? Set up meetings with yourself, and focus, focus, focus…


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