Stretching Your Focus

Time management intrigues me. Way back when, when I was a bed and breakfast innkeeper, I learned from a time management expert that everyone needed to block their time, and be committed to those time blocks. Since then, I’ve felt there has to be a better way. That was further reinforced when I was a real estate agent. My broker followed the advice, blocking his time — and that meant we couldn’t get his input on contracts except during specific times. That seemed just as crazy. I felt then that when you are in the service industry, time management took on a different tenor than it did for those in traditional office jobs.

Since then, I’ve learned of many other approaches to time management. The best of them had the same idea: to be more productive; to be sure to schedule time for yourself, for friends and family, and for breaks; and to spend more time growing your knowledge and skills. I’ve shared my own thoughts several times about some of the different styles I’ve learned about time management. (Here’s a list of some of my previous articles on time management: Time Perception, Manage Your Time, Manage Your Energy, Structure’s Challenge.)

A big part of the time management I keep learning about is to remove distraction — especially social media devices and apps — to stay focused. I know I’m more productive when the Facebook tab is closed and I mute my notifications of phone calls, texts, and various messages. The little known fact at play is that most of the time our brains can stay on task for about 40 seconds before they jump to a different thought. When your phone and social media options are in sight, your brain switches tasks in less that 35 seconds. You can see why we’re told to get rid of those distractions!

Having ADD/ADHD adds more weight to the need for time management skills and tools. What’s worked best for me has been to simplify my approach. I put important, time-sensitive appointments/tasks in my electronic calendar and the two or three prioritized tasks that support my goal into my paper day planner. I keep my spiral notebook with my “to do” list open on my desk to keep my attention on what I need and want to do, and my phone alarms when there’s something time-sensitive to do. Simple.

I’ve tested a couple of other systems that people swear by only to find my simple system works best for me. When I use my system I am productive, creative, and calm. That’s a great recipe for success. Before I go further into this, do you know your successful productivity recipe? Now let’s see if we can perfect it.

I’ve learned to not over-schedule because life happens, and the frustration of not getting everything on my list done was bad for my psyche. I intuited that filling my time and brain all day was a bad idea. I knew that breaks were critical, and Chris Bailey, author of Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction, taught me why you need spaces in between productive time to really get important things accomplished.

There is a missing element to your time management tool, an element that will improve your productivity, creativity, and satisfaction. Well, I understood the need to not schedule every second of every day, but I didn’t understand the mechanics of my unscheduled time. I bet you don’t know this either. Let’s change that.

We all keep open tabs (not just on our computers) and open loops in our brains. Focus is good. When we hyperfocus and fill our minds with a task, that eventually becomes bad because we don’t get to close the taps or the loops. That gnaws on our brains, maybe even keeping us up at night.

Periods of non-focus help close those tabs and loops. Brains naturally focus 53% of the time and wander 47% of the time. We’ve been told that focusing is the way to get things done, which would imply that we need to learn to corral our mind more, reduce that 47% to zero — or close to it. Right?

Before we answer that here’s another bit of information to give you pause for thought. When you are focused, you don’t think of the future much. However, when you let your mind wander:

  • 48% of the time you think of the future
  • 28% of the time you think of the present
  • 12% of the time you think of the past.

It’s when you link those three time elements that you come up with other ideas that you wouldn’t have if you were continually focused. We need to schedule a big chunk of time un-focus — or “scatter focus” — to really be productive, creative, and satisfied. The why behind unscheduled time — or un-focus — is now clear for me. And that’s why so many people have such good ideas in the shower!

Part of what makes a wandering mind — or scatter focus — work is that the brain loves the new and novel. Novelty gives your brain a dopamine hit to reward it, so a wandering mind is kept at this level of distraction — and thus reward. Put another way, brains are stimulated by distraction, and it needs a reward to stay on task. Taking long showers, and enjoying long walks, especially in nature, are two great ways to let your mind wander and get into scatter focus.

The burning question for me is, how can I spend enough time focused to be productive, and un-focused enough to be a problem solver and more productive? The snappy answer is to schedule free time and capture what comes up. Is there enough time in the day for all of that? Yep, if you use productivity strategies that get your time back. And I’m not talking about apps and gadgets/devices.

The kind of productivity strategies I’m talking about to get your time back is meditation, actively planning your day and recording your priorities in a planner, exercise, proper hydration, and “hiring things” to increase productivity. The concept of “hiring things” to increase productivity means delegating to devices/apps/people, indulging in your coffee or a protein shake — those things you buy or pay for to make you more productive. Doing all of these productive strategies helps your brain be more productive so you actually get things done in less time, because of the renewed brain energy and focus you have from the intentional use of your time.

Do you see how scatter focus and adding productivity strategies, combined with your favorite time management technique, can stretch your focus for a more productive, creative, and satisfying day?

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