Reclaimed focus

If you can hold a new year’s resolution until March then I reckon you can say you’ve stuck the landing, and you’re now the proud owner of a new behaviour. Over the Christmas/New Year’s break I read ‘Stolen Focus‘ by Johann Hari. The overarching theme of the book is that modern life has taken away our ability to focus and think deeply on things. As if to prove this, when I say ‘I read’, I should actually say ‘I listened to the audiobook…at 1.5 speed…while I did a variety of other things’, but that just feels too sad to put in writing.

Now clearly you only really read/listen to a self-help book if you’re actually struggling with the problem yourself, the audiobooks for ‘My pecs are too big’ and ‘What do I do with all this spare money?’ have remained undownloaded by my Audible app. But in truth, I hadn’t realised just how little ‘deep thinking’ I was doing. I did have a sense of ending each day pretty much at exactly the point I had started it, but at the same time, I had ticked off my ‘to-do’ list and got lots of little things done. The simple truth is that ‘I got a whole lot of small things done today that kept people happy’ is a LOT more popular in the workplace and at home than ‘I didn’t get around to doing that thing you asked me to do…but boy did I have a deep think about an issue!’

But I kept thinking back to train trips as a teenager when I had nothing to do but let my mind wander as the stations on the Hurstbridge line flashed by. I could distinctly remember weird tangents that opened up new thoughts…weird tangents that no longer happen, because I have a purpose built tangent-killer in the form of a phone within arms length every waking minute of the day.

So I made a new year’s resolution to try two things to improve my focus, one for my home life and one for my work-life and I thought I’d take you through how it’s been going with the two of them.

I think it’s fair to say I was an early adopter of podcasts. Where you can now mention podcasts and have people tell you their own personal favourites, I was into them when if you said ‘Podcast’ people would stare at you and say ‘What’s a podcast?’…and when you tried to explain that it was like a radio show without the music…or a movie without the pictures, somehow YOU looked like the crazy one.
Anyway, pretty soon I was listening to audio books as well as podcasts on long runs, and then I was listening to them at 1.5 speed because listening to them at normal speed took too long, and then every time I was doing any sort of boring housework, or going for a walk, the headphones would go in…and then over the COVID lockdowns I listened to my headphones so much that I developed Tinnitus.
This did not make me think I should listen to them less…I should just turn the sound down.

Putting my headphones in any time something boring presented itself became second-nature. At the same time our youngest was having an issue with automatically watching a screen any time he was bored. So I decided that instead of just saying ‘don’t do that’, I would committ to giving up my habit as well. So I decided to stop listening to my headphones on my walks.

The results

Ability to stick to it: 95%
Challenge: On longer walks with the dog it was easier, as I think I knew that 30 – 40 minutes of letting my mind work through things was going to be a benefit. But on short trips (from our house to the supermarket/market, or from the office to get a coffee) it was a lot harder to convince myself that there was going to be any benefit.
Has it made a difference?: Most definitely. It has been amazing to see how much more my mind can come up with ideas and solutions once I give it the space, especially after about 15-20 minutes thinking about the same problem, suddenly alternative ideas would present themselves, or links I hadn’t seen before would become apparent. In particular I had one issue at work that I was able to see from another perspective and find a solution…with my photography, I was able to think ideas through from ‘idea’ to ‘how to actually make it work’.
Even on the shorter walks, while I certainly didn’t have any moments of clarity, I did feel as though I was a lot more aware of the world around me.

I was lucky enough to do a 3-day course with Leadership Victoria last month, and one of the key takeaways was the importance of getting ‘on the balcony’ so that you can see the whole picture, rather than getting caught up in the hustle and bustle below. The idea is clear, once you’re in management your role is not just the ‘on the tools’ work, but also the higher level, more strategic work.
Of course at the same time we now have more ways than ever for people to contact us. On any given day I will receive work requests via email, text message, phone call, Microsoft Teams and If I’m in the office then people will drop past for a chat, and if I’m working from home the Teams chat will be a constant series of notifications. Worst of all are the people who wait for the split second your availability ‘turns green’ to call you. These people know that the most important thing is to make their problem, your problem and will happily spend 20 minutes waiting like a predatory spider for your current meeting or call to finish so that they can unburden themselves.

The other problem with all of these small requests is that they’re usually 15-20 minute jobs, so there is a sense of satisfaction that comes with getting them done and ticking them off. So much so that if given the choice between a 15 minute quick fix Teams request, and a trickier 40 minute piece of HR paperwork…I will invariably go with the Teams request with the red exclamation mark over the email with ‘URGENT’ in the subject.
We also have Teams chats with my fellow Managers, my team, the video team within my team, that ebb and flow over the course of the day…but never fall silent. Quite often these chats present the opportunity to post the perfect GIF of Will Ferrell saying ‘That escalated quickly’ or John Oliver saying ‘Cool’, or pretty much any line from ‘Schitt’s Creek’…and I’ll be damned if I miss that opportunity!

So at the start of this year I turned off my notifications on Teams, and told my team that for the first 45 minutes of every hour I wouldn’t respond to Teams messages, and would reply where necessary for that last 15 minutes. If I’m honest, I rarely focus my attention on one thing for more than 45 minutes at a time, so that 15 minutes of quickfire responses at the end of the hour is the reward for the sustained and focussed thinking I’ve done for the remainder.

The Results

Ability to stick to it: About 50%
Challenge: Whereas the challenge to not take headphones on a walk put all of the pressure on me to stick to it…this one is a bit different, as there are plenty of people outside of my team who don’t know my ‘you have to wait until the last part of the hour for me to reply to you’ approach. So there are still always requests and conversations coming through…and some of them you can’t ignore. Also, the allure of the quick job that will make someone happy straight away, over the boring work that may yeild a result in 6 months…is still too hard for me to resist.
Has it made a difference?: If the measurement of success is the amount of high level thinking and planning I’ve done since January, then it has made absolutely no difference. If the measurement of success is an awareness of how little high level thinking and planning I’m doing…then it has been painfully successful.
A big reason I love my job is that I still get to do the ‘hands-on’ work, and I think that having someone who genuinely loves creativity is still a rarity in a bureaucracy…so perhaps keeping my hands in the creative work, rather than the policies and procedures that guide the work is actually the harder and more beneficial option. Or perhaps that’s exactly what a creative person says when faced with the pressure to just sit down and do some damned spreadsheets and Standard Operating Procedures.
Either way, I’m going to stick with it. If nothing else, just to show my team the importance I place on bringing your whole self to a task and thinking deeply, rather than spreading yourself over a whole lot of smaller tasks, chasing that ‘quick win’….and that real change takes time, effort and the occasional failure.