Protecting Time for Your Most Important Work

The way to hunt is for as long as you live against as long as there is such and such an animal; just as the way to paint is as long as there is you and colors and canvas, and to write as long as you can live and there is pencil or paper or ink or any machine to do it with, or anything you care to write about, and you feel a fool, and you are a fool, to do it any other way.

-Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa

Focus on One Project at a Time

We live in an age of seemingly endless multi-tasking.  At any given moment, our conscious minds are being bombarded by the firing of neurons, reminding us of our professional obligations to our superiors and subordinates, client calls to return, due dates, deadlines, the wants and needs of our children, financial concerns, personal relationships, and our own personal well-being.  We all need to navigate these choppy seas, and the habits of routines and setting daily goals are helpful to focus us on a short-term basis.  Roy Baumeister and John Tierney urge in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength a simple lesson: to maximize your success, “Focus on one project at a time.”

This begs the question, though, of on which project should you focus?  Responsible business, family, and personal management will require some amount of attention to daily operations and maintenance.  But are you directing any time and attention to your bigger strategic goals?  The big projects, the ideas that fill your daydreams and pop up in your mind while you shower, run, or suffer through a daily commute?  These opportunities are important but not urgent, and thus often take a backseat to the reactive mindset of responding to daily asks.  These short-term needs all claim to be urgent, but closer inspection will show that they range greatly in terms of actual importance.  And at the end of the day, you’ll probably find that dealing with very few of those “emergencies” will actually advance you towards accomplishing the goals that are most important to you.  Charting a successful course requires us to protect time for our minds to think about, process, and progress towards our strategic goals and important projects.

Prioritize Your Life, or Someone Else Will

In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown observes, “In order to have focus, we need to escape to focus.”  In other words, it is impossible to develop focus on the things most important to you and your long-term goals unless you are able to separate from the daily urgencies of life.  McKeown recounts the efforts of Sir Isaac Newton undertaken in writing Principia Mathematica, the three-volume book in which Newton published his laws of motion and universal gravitation, forming the basis of classical mechanics.  Between May 1684 and April 1686, Newton was so single-handedly devoted to the pursuit of his mathematical studies that he often forgot to eat, sleep, or change clothes.  His notebooks related to his chemical experiments have no entries for this same time period, demonstrating his abandonment of other projects and studies.

Newton’s work on Principia is an extreme example of focus, no doubt.  The lesson is of great value nonetheless.  As McKeown pointedly states, “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”  Making progress on your long-term goals requires setting aside time to focus on them.  In another example, Baumeister and Tierney describe Raymond Chandler’s practice of developing focus in his writing through a method called “the Nothing Alternative.”  Frustrated with his lack of progress on a writing project, Chandler set about to develop greater focus and avoid distraction.  Of course, in trying to force focus artificially, Chandler discovered what you likely have experienced at one time or another – that attempting to force focus only results in your mind feeling even more distracted.  In other words, you can’t fake it.  To deal with this resistance, Chandler gave himself permission to write, or to do nothing.  He did not allow himself to do any other work.  In alleviating the pressure to “do something,” Chandler gave himself space to think in a focused environment, with an outlet channel of writing during the assigned time.

How to Find Time to Focus

Methods for finding distraction-free time are many, and include creating a workspace conducive to focused work and eliminating outside interruptions and alerts from colleagues and technology.  The most important step is simply committing to the time.  Set aside time on at least a weekly basis for uninterrupted thinking and work on your long-term goals.  If you can do it more frequently, do it.  Put it on your calendar today.  Make sure others know it is time that you need to and will protect.

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