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2 Secrets to Better Work: Focus & Distraction
I believe there are 2 secrets to working more effectively at whatever it is God has called you to do: Focus and Distraction.
Focus is difficult. Life is more distracting than it’s ever been. Today it takes a lot of focus to focus. To create and accomplish meaningful work that makes a difference and helps others flourish, focus is required. Creating a sermon, closing a new business deal, making art, building a house, researching a new technology, writing a book, and shipping a product demands focus. But we’re distracted. We’re unfocused. So there’s a lot more screwing around these days, a lot of tinkering and dabbling and talking, and much less creating, closing, making, building, researching, writing, and shipping.
A great place to start in renewing your focus is to read The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time, a brief article by businessman Tony Schwartz. Focus on one or two points from the article, then start applying those points and doing one thing at a time. Tip: (I’ve shared this before) I would not be able to write books, create sermons, or dream up ideas for the future of the church I lead without the help of the Self Control app.
Distraction isn’t all bad. Healthy distraction feeds focus. If you over focus on a task, your mind can grow stale. Personally, I only work on something if I’m excited about it. I get excited about things, then I do them. That’s when I do my best work. And this excitement often comes from distracting myself from work, from playing and goofing off, from getting some headspace. I take a break from my normal work and my main priorities and goals that I’ve laid out for the month and I distract myself with things that interest me–magazines, movies, walks outside, conversations with strangers, etc. My best ideas often hit me during long trail runs, while hanging out with my friends, or while talking with my sons.
I loved how Jonah Lehrer articulated similar ideas in last weekend’s The Wall Street Journal article, How to Be Creative. Here are some quotes that articulate what I’m talking about, healthy distraction and the value of cross-pollination:
For prompting creativity, few things are as important as time devoted to cross-pollination with fields that are outside our areas of expertise.
…This ability to calculate progress is an important part of the creative process. When we don’t feel that we’re getting closer to the answer—we’ve hit the wall, so to speak—we probably need an insight. If there is no feeling of knowing, the most productive thing we can do is forget about work for a while. But when those feelings of knowing are telling us that we’re getting close, we need to keep on struggling.
Of course, both moment-of-insight problems and nose-to-the-grindstone problems assume that we have the answers to the creative problems we’re trying to solve somewhere in our heads. They’re both just a matter of getting those answers out. Another kind of creative problem, though, is when you don’t have the right kind of raw material kicking around in your head. If you’re trying to be more creative, one of the most important things you can do is increase the volume and diversity of the information to which you are exposed.
Steve Jobs famously declared that “creativity is just connecting things.” Although we think of inventors as dreaming up breakthroughs out of thin air, Mr. Jobs was pointing out that even the most far-fetched concepts are usually just new combinations of stuff that already exists.
…How can people get better at making these kinds of connections? Mr. Jobs argued that the best inventors seek out “diverse experiences,” collecting lots of dots that they later link together. Instead of developing a narrow specialization, they study, say, calligraphy (as Mr. Jobs famously did) or hang out with friends in different fields. Because they don’t know where the answer will come from, they are willing to look for the answer everywhere.
…The sociologist Martin Ruef, for instance, analyzed the social and business relationships of 766 graduates of the Stanford Business School, all of whom had gone on to start their own companies. He found that those entrepreneurs with the most diverse friendships scored three times higher on a metric of innovation. Instead of getting stuck in the rut of conformity, they were able to translate their expansive social circle into profitable new concepts.
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
This is what I’m saying: have a rigorous focus to your work, and goof off a lot, explore, rest, and chase what interests you. Do that and you’ll do better work.