As I’ve reflected on my own thinking and coached others, I’ve been amazed at how much time and productivity is lost for a monumentally banal reason:
Not knowing what to work on.
I’m serious. Even when you’ve gotten good at focusing and have eliminated most distractions, it’s possible to lose a ton of potential productivity to simply not knowing exactly what it is you should be doing at any given moment.
Normally, I try to avoid blogging about organization, because there’s a lot of stuff out there on the topic, and I’m not necessarily that organized in the traditional sense. However, if you want to get to really elite levels of focus and productivity, you can’t avoid it entirely.
Upon reflection, this makes sense. If you’re going to focus, you must focus on something. You can’t focus on everything, by definition. If you’ll recall from some of my other writing, I often criticize most mainstream focus advice as being little more than tips on avoiding distractions.
Don’t get me wrong, that’s important, and I talk plenty about it myself, but it’s only half the story, if that much.
You can eliminate distractions that keep you from focusing on X, but what is X? If you can’t define X clearly, can you be said to really be focusing on it?
I know this sounds like semantic games or philosophical hair-splitting, but take a moment to think about it.
If I interrupted you in the middle of a work session and asked you what you were working on and all you could say, even when I pressed you for more detail, was “I’m working on a project”, how much do you think you’re really getting done?
Probably not much.
If you can’t say specifically what you’re doing, you’re probably not doing much.
Now, I’m obviously assuming an unlikely hypothetical here. If you were actually in the middle of getting work done, you COULD tell me more or less exactly what you’re doing.
However, when you sit down to work, there’s a good chance you DO have problems being specific. You’ll eventually figure out the specific thing to work on and do it, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll waste a lot of time before you figure out what that is, and even once you do, you will naturally flit back a fourth a bit.
I first realized this when editing a book I’m working on (and yes, I did just shamelessly drop a teaser for The Focus Formulas book). I’d written a lot of it, but there were still a lot of incomplete sections and things marked with “TODO: rewrite this so people know that it’s a metaphor and not a deeply unsettling existential analogy” or “<insert that story about Aunt Edna’s psychotic pomeranian here>”.
When I first started writing, things were good. I had a general outline and I would just sit down and fill it in (or for some sections I’d already written about elsewhere, copy-paste) like a madman. However, once most of it was down, my progress slowed to a crawl.
When I would sit down to work on it, I’d read over the completed sections for a bit, then jump to a “TODO” and do half of it, then go reorganize another section, then do some grammar edits on the conclusion, etc.
As you might suspect, I did not make a lot of progress for the time spent. But then, I read something to the effect that a goal of “Edit the first section of chapter 4” is VASTLY better than “do some writing.”
I don’t think anyone would argue with this, but I also don’t think most realize just how powerful it is. I certainly didn’t until I tried it.
Put it this way, after puttering around for I don’t want to admit how long doing here-and-there fixes to the manuscript, by setting specific micro-goals, I knocked out virtually all of those little TODOs and incomplete sections in only a few hours of total work.
The thing is, I’d already become a big believer in the power of specificity in a related context. The Morning Note Method is a way I devised to avoid messing around in the morning by defining exactly what I needed to work on first thing in the day.
However, I hadn’t quite realized how broad the power of specificity can be. I knew it was the way to start the day, but it wasn’t until later that I realized I could radically increase my productivity by always knowing exactly what I should be working on and, when I finished or took a break, what I should be working on next.
When I started making a point of knowing exactly what task to work on, and got the sense for how to define tasks so that they could be completed in a work block (usually around half an hour), my productivity soared.
It’s a bit of an art, but it’s one that you can get better at quickly once you understand how powerful it is.
So, that’s all folks. Focused is fast, specificity is speed.