Repeated Focus

There’s something about this productivity angle, something about it’s effectiveness and about how unappealing the idea is itself that makes me think this is the most important productivity topic that’s never been talked about.

People who know the GTD method also know that one of the most difficult parts of the system is the weekly review. The weekly review is a scheduled time once a week where you spend an hour reviewing your different lists, projects, goals, and where you reexamine and reset your priorities for the following week. The first time people do the weekly review it’s usually smooth because they’ve just started using their GTD system. At that point it’s easier to do the review because there’s more excitement about going through the process for the first time, and because their system doesn’t have all their commitments in it yet, so the review is lighter than is should be. The hardest part about the review for me though was that it was the hardest part of the entire GTD system to make a habit.

After thinking about it for a little bit I realized that one reason why the weekly review was so difficult to do was because it’s the only part of the GTD system that I have to decide to do. Creating tasks and sorting through action items comes up as a matter of course throughout the day. Creating new lists and projects, deferring items and adding them to lists becomes a reflex and a fun thing to do when you use the GTD system. But the weekly review you have to schedule in advance.

Another thing about it this idea which makes it such a pain is that the part that comes easily, organizing and processing tasks, isn’t itself very productive at all. Organizing tasks doesn’t get them done, and it doesn’t help you decide from a longterm perspective which tasks are the most important either. The work that doesn’t involve explicit focus will usually be the least important work.

That idea leads me to the conclusion that the best way to be productive is to focus. Make the decision to focus and repeat it as much as possible. Ruthlessly.

What We Do Wrong

Multitasking is the worst thing we do to our productivity, and we naturally drift towards on a daily basis. Our focus is divided between the many tasks that come up in the course of the day, and our focus decreases with each new task that arises. One reason this is a dangerous habit is because it happens so many times during the day, everyday, that we eventually start to get used to it. It becomes the way we do, and the way we think about work.

We also increase the risk on ourselves of falling into this habit whenever we take action to “help” our productivity: We may buy a second monitor, buy new task management software, more notebooks, or when we start adding more email inboxes or calendars. All of these just give us more things to focus on, and more rope to hang ourselves with.

Interruption

It’s the applications that keep us connected to others that are designed with many features to alert us of new activity. We want to know when people are talking to us, or when they are asking us a question, or when they reply to a message we sent them. The opportunities are endless, and sometimes the ways these tools can interrupt our work are just as endless: Growl notices, Dock animations, system sounds, icon badges… One problem is each of these interruptions is almost impossible to see and ignore. We become drawn to them. Because what’s even harder to do than stopping yourself from opening your email when you see that alert, is to try and get any productive work done knowing that there’s a message waiting for you.
If focus is something that takes time to build (say it takes you five minutes to get into a really good focus and into the “zone”), any single one of these interruptions will destroy your investment in an instant.

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