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Focus on the end goal, not the shiny extras

During college I played music professionally. It was a wonderful experience and I loved getting to know and work with some pretty crazy people.

Jazz musicians in particular can be neurotic at times. (That’s why I fit in so well, haha!) Take sax players. Some sax players never take their horn off. Wherever they go they have their horn in their hand and they are always noodling on a riff or a solo idea. Other sax players are obsessed with their gear. Mouthpieces, reeds, pads, ligatures. If you can switch it out and experiment they’ll try it.

Of these two types of sax player, which do you think were the better musicians? The gear heads were tons of fun to be around, but the obsessive players were much better folks to have on the bandstand with you. They were so good because they focused on playing, which of course is the end goal of being a musician.

There’s a lesson here for all of us. Whatever it is you do in your work or your art, make sure you focus on the most important parts. Being a gear head is easy: focus on the minutiae, the shiny objects. You’ll spend money in pursuit of better gear, which can be mistaken for making progress in your work or your art.

It’s better instead to focus on the end goal of your work. Ship your art. Make that your mission. Don’t lose sight of that goal.

The Paradox of Focus

The more we focus on the less we accomplish. At least that’s my experience. This doesn’t preclude getting many different things done, but it does mean that you need to protect your focus at any given moment in order to do good work.

Recently I’ve been playing Suduko. I love the way that it rewards concentration with a cascade of success. Focus on completing a house, a row, or a column, and you’ll be met with a series of other open moves across the board. Focusing on the entire board brings overwhelm. Focusing on a small portion opens up possibilies across the board.

In our work it is essential that we jealously guard our time and focus. Single task. Be present. To the extent you can control it, say no (or not now) to anything that will slow down the work you have before you.

James Clear put this beautifully in his newsletter:

Make the most of one opportunity and more opportunities will come your way.

Moving boldly in one direction causes more paths to unfold before you.

To get more, focus on less…

Focus Your Windows to Block Distractions

On my computer I love the option to have a window take up the entire screen. Not just to maximize it to cover the desktop, but filling the entire screen. As I write this I have only one window visible, no menu bar or icons in the dock. Do Not Disturb mode is enabled. Right now this computer is only capable of doing one thing.

Knowledge work, the kind of work many of us do all day, revolves around writing. For hundreds of years writing was a pretty simple task. Whether it was a letter, a recipe, or a novel, the person writing had a pen and some paper. The paper could be a loose sheet or part of a bound book. The pen could be a fountain pen or a quill or a ballpoint. The essential ingredients for this kind of work were simple.

Typewriters were a new tool in knowledge work, but the essential task was the same. One sheet of paper and one typewriter. The writer pressed on keys, letters and symbols were imprinted on the paper, and that was that. It wasn’t very efficient and if you made a mistake it meant some sort of manual correction, but pen and paper had the same challenge.

Computers and mobile devices changed this. Fixing mistakes was so easy! Press a key and delete the mistake. Sharing the work was much easier too. Email meant sending your work cost nothing and it arrived in an instant.

Technology made things better in so many ways, but it has also changed the equation. Rather than facilitating the basic tasks we do, it actively tries to take our attention away from that task. How many of your phone’s notifications do you really need to see right now? How often does a computer ping take you away from something you are doing in real life?

I don’t know that I have very many answers, but I know that when my focus is on only one thing at a time I get much more done.

It seems counter intuitive to work this way. Computers have trained us all to try and multi-task. They call out that this is the only way to do knowledge work. It must be right!

Remember that long before computers dinged for every email and pinged for every new YouTube video, people like you worked by single tasking. You don’t have to revert to pen and paper or a typewriter to get the benefits that kind of work brings.

The Right Way is the Hard Way

Worthwhile pursuits are hard. Work worth doing involves struggle. This is one of the lessons I wish I had learned earlier in life.

This afternoon I saw a perfect example of this. We had a small, Friday afternoon emergency at work. A customer needed a very specific data set that I knew was in our database but that I didn’t know how to retrieve. A coworker stepped up and saved the day.

She has been studying a monster book called SQL for Mere Mortals (public library). This is not light reading. It’s the kind of book you should never read while laying on your back—if you fall asleep and it drops on your face it’ll break your nose. I know studying it has been a chore.

She crafted a query that gave us exactly what we needed. The hard work she’s been putting in paid off.

In a recent interview Jerry Seinfeld said “If you’re efficient, you’re doing it the wrong way. The right way is the hard way. The show was successful because I micromanaged it—every word, every line, every take, every edit, every casting. That’s my way of life.”

Embracing hard work and the focus needed to do hard work is unusual. Most people don’t work this way. But if we want to accomplish great things it’s the right path.

Deep Listening

Listening to music with musicians is interesting. Most musicians I know think of listening to music as an activity you do exclusively; not while reading a book, not while looking at your phone, or while working on email. The music deserves full attention while it’s playing. You learn and gain from the music by listening attentively and deeply.

This isn’t to say that musicians don’t like background music. They do, but they also have the annoying habit of actually listening to the background music much more than normal people do. (If you’re friends with musicians you’ve probably had the experience where they groan for no reason or interrupt you to say “I love this song” when you were unaware there was music playing.)

Imagine if everyone listened deeply all the time. How would our conversations be different? How much time could we save in meetings? How many misunderstandings could be avoided? How much more affection would we perceive? The next time you’re in a situation where listening is important, whether to music, to a friend, or even to the news, listen deeply.

A New Year’s Do Not List

It’s the time of year when we think about where we are, where we want to be, and what we should do to get there. I love the new year. Setting goals can be great and keeping new years resolutions, even for a few days or weeks, is a good thing.

As you take time to set goals, consider adding some “Do Not” goals to your list. Instead of adding more and more things to your already busy life, decide what things you want to subtract or stop doing. There is a beauty in progress by subtraction.

As you create space and time by not adding things to your to do list, you’ll be able to focus deeply on important things. The best work you do is deep work, and that takes time and concentration.

Simplify. Focus. Single task. Concentrate exclusively on the work you are doing at this moment. Great progress comes through the accumulation of small gains.

Here’s to a happy, productive, and peaceful new year!

You Are a Mashup of What You Choose

One of my favorite writers, Austin Kleon, wrote in his book Steal Like an Artist of how we are all mashups. From our genetics to our creative influences, we are the sum of many parts.

You are, in fact, a mashup of what you choose to let into your life. You are the sum of your influences. The German writer Goethe said ‘We are shaped and fashioned by what we love.’

We are also shaped by our habits. I worry that in my life I too often choose to dive into a screen rather than spending time thinking or reading. Activities that used to be confined to our computers, such as social media, now live in our pockets and are available all the time.

Making hard decisions about what we allow on our devices can make a huge difference in our quality of life.

I don’t need a world of on-demand video on my phone. If it’s there I will spend time watching it.

I don’t need Twitter (or Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, or Pinterest) on my phone. I’ll never be bored enough to get the benefits of boredom if I’m never more than a moment away from more content.

I don’t need notifications for most apps. Notifications pull my attention away from doing work (or anything else!) deeply and with quality. Context switching is brutal and I want to avoid it whenever possible.

Most of the convenience our devices give us is garbage. It’s input we should avoid. I need to curate the influences in my life because those influences shape who I am.