Focus by Leo Babauta (Part 1 of 5)

“The problem’s plain to see
Too much technology
Machines to save our lives
Machines, de-humanise”

– Styx, Mr Roboto

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I love technology as much as the next guy but sometimes it feels like we’ve gone too far. Nowadays, instead of only eating in front of the TV like generations of yesteryear, we drext (drive and text), ralk (read and walk), and have conversations with our earphones still plugged in. (We also kill language by making up stupid words.) It’s a miracle we don’t bump into each other all the time!

Unfortunately, this addiction to always being connected has become a new way of life. And it’s happened so fast we’ve had no chance to figure out the etiquette. People get mad at you for taking more than 5 seconds to reply to an email or text. Even more troubling is the fact that 24% of Facebook and Twitter users under 25 allow electronic messages to interrupt them in the bathroom. Like, ew!

So how can we finally start disconnecting from life’s stressors and find the space to relax? Leo Babauta, creator of Zen Habits and author of The Power of Less, offers practical advice in Focus: A Simplicity Manifesto in the Age of Distraction. Even though the book is designed to be short and concise (in line with its core teachings), there’s a wealth of information to learn. I’m already having great success with the following:

  • Start and end the day in silence. One of the greatest investments I ever made was in a yoga DVD back in 2006. Five years later and I still spend 45 minutes stretching off the sleep 6 mornings a week. I’ve also added 15 minutes of meditation to end each session as well as 10 minutes more before I go to bed. If you can’t find a full hour, spend 5 minutes with a quiet cup of coffee or drive to work with the radio off. The day should start on a calm note, not with you reaching for your phone to tweet ‘just woke up’ before your feet even hit the floor.
  • Work on your Most Important Things (MITs) right upfront. We all have days that fly by with us getting no work done. To avoid that, schedule up to three MITs as soon as you start. Since my job involves reading a lot of academic journals and industry magazines, I set aside about half an hour as soon as I sit down at my desk to make my way through an article or two in the growing pile. Only once that’s done do I start processing my email. I’ve noticed that the only way I ever get it done is by clearing away distractions and getting into that ‘zone’ right upfront. And so I clear my desk, listen to great classical music through my earphones, and just get it done.
  • Alternate periods of work and rest. The book makes a great distinction between creating and consuming. Because constantly switching between the two robs us of our attention and time, it badly affects how truly productive we are. That’s why I really like the idea of working for 50 minutes and then taking a break for 10. It’s also why I close all distracting applications and popup alerts (sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and restart Windows since telling it ‘Later’ won’t make it stop asking). Creating time is creating time. Rest time is rest time. And never the twain shall meet.
  • Have periods of complete disconnection (and make sure everyone knows when they are). This is definitely my favourite idea. Instead of falling in line with society’s expectation that you’re available on your CrapBerry 24/7, you set limits. That’s why I take my lunch hour to get outside and enjoy the air. It’s also why I really love gym sessions after work and power naps after gym. More limits I’ve adopted lately include no email after 5pm and phone on silent after 8pm. Ever since I spent 10 days without email on my trip to Egypt, I know it’s possible. And while I do still find myself fighting the urge, the benefits make the effort worthwhile!

“When we are unable to find tranquillity within ourselves, it is useless to seek it elsewhere.” – Francois de La Rochefoucauld

As the title implies, the main aim of the book is to help us focus: “Our ability to focus will allow us to create in ways that perhaps we haven’t in years. It’ll allow us to slow down and find peace of mind… It’ll allow us to do less, and in doing so, have more free time for what’s important to us. It’ll force us to choose, and in doing so, stop the excesses that have led to our economic problems, individually and as a society.”

Achieving this is not an impossible feat if you work on small changes and baby steps. Pick one of the areas described above and start there. It’s okay if all you can handle is a few minutes at a time. As you progress (and give yourself healthy rewards along the way), you’ll manage to remain focused for longer periods.

You’ll finally understand that multitasking sucks, not because it doesn’t work but because it means neither activity gets the attention it deserves. Multitasking also means you don’t get the attention you deserve. That’s because every time you rush out of a movie to answer the phone or decide to check your email in the middle of a spinning class, you’re telling the world that your time means nothing. You’re telling the world that they’re the ones in control. Are you honestly that worthless? I don’t think so.

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