The Importance of Designing a Life of Focus

Have you ever reduced your life to one project that meant the world to you? That spoke to your heart, that you were fully dedicated to finishing and doing well? That you tuned in to your deepest sense of discipline for?

If you have, try to remember what that felt like. (If you haven’t, envision yourself doing it and what it might feel like.)

Did you experience moments where everything else fell away and you and your work seemed to exist in a frozen moment of time (although of course when you looked at the clock, many hours had passed)? Did you find yourself thinking of nothing but your project? Did you feel excited and energized (instead of drained and frustrated) to begin each day’s work?

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I did this a couple of years ago and saw amazing results from it. My second novel, which I’d spent upward of five years working on, and which I thought had an exciting, high-concept plot, bombed when I submitted it to agents. My first novel, which I thought was far less interesting, had gotten decent feedback but no offer of representation. But the second book garnered only form rejections, not even a single request to read the full manuscript. I was devastated.

I knew I had to do something different. I resolved to write another book, fast. I gave myself one year; I had a full-time job, so that seemed like something that was reasonable, not too long that I’d get frustrated and not too short that I wouldn’t be able to follow through. I made it my top priority every day to get my book-work done. At first, it was multiple hours of planning and sometimes research. Then it was two straight months of writing, 1500 words every single day (I took only three days off). After a short break, it was two months of editing, sometimes a certain number of pages a day, sometimes a certain number of hours. I ended up finishing the book in about nine months. I’m working with an editor on it at the moment, and I’m incredibly proud of how it’s turned out. It’s a great book. I’m planning to self-publish it as soon as possible this year.

I lived and breathed that book, The Flight of the White Crow, for nine months. I didn’t work on any other writing. I didn’t travel much. I said no to a lot of social invitations. I wasn’t dating anyone at the time. I didn’t clean my house much, and I ate more takeout than I normally do.

The Value of Flow

There is big-time value in narrowing your focus to one creative project. When you purposely shut out distractions and point your focus at one thing, you get into a flow state. Lewis Howes discusses this in his book The School of Greatness; he calls it “a champion’s mindset.”

Via The School of Greatness:

The champion’s mindset is all about focus, flow, belief, and emotional intelligence. It is the complete dedication to your vision of future achievement. [It is] … a unique headspace that allows you to focus all your energy on putting yourself in the best position physically, mentally, and emotionally to be successful.

According to a study conducted by consulting firm McKinsey, you’re five times more productive when you’re in a flow state. When you’re focused on one thing instead of switching between products, you keep your headspace full of that project and you don’t have to get into a new context every time you sit down to work.

Michael Calleia, an award-winning product designer, describes the costs of context switching here. He gives the example of an exercise in which you write down sequences from 1 to 10, A to J, and I to X (Roman numerals), first across a row so that you’re doing all the sequences at once (like multitasking), and then down a column, one at a time (focusing on one project at a time). Seems pretty clear which of these is going to be fastest even without trying it, doesn’t it?

Figuring Out What to Get Rid Of

So. We know we want to focus, because it helps  us get more done and feel better about our work as we do it. That’s the easy part, right? What about the hard part? What about the how?

How do you reduce your focus to one (maaayyybeee two) important project(s)?

I will admit, I’m no expert at this. I find the world full of fascinating ideas, histories, experiences, places, and people, and I have about one billion areas of interest. I also have one billion ideas for things that would be cool to do. It can be terribly hard sometimes to reduce my days to one project when there are so many things I’d like to create and accomplish.

But you know what helps? Knowing what’s most important to me. Knowing what makes me happiest to work on. So I monitor that, as I work, paying attention to which books or blog posts or other projects engage my interest the most, and I try to follow that as much as possible.

Sometimes, now that I’m posting here every week and working toward publishing two books this year, I have to also take into account what’s closest to done. Publishing my novel The Flight of the White Crow is priority numero uno, so whenever that comes back to me from the editor, that’s what I work on first. After that, it’s blog time. Once that’s finished, I’m planning to publish a short e-book about how to write a novel, but I wanted to create an online course to go with it, so there may be more of a learning curve with that one. I also have a second novel waiting in the wings to be edited, but that will have to wait its turn.

So, step one is: Figure out what makes you happiest. What do you like? What do you feel good doing? Follow that.

Step two is: Among the rest of the stuff, what can you stop doing? Get serious about it. In The Art of Non-Conformity, Chris Guillebeau suggests making a “to-stop-doing” list. Figure out what’s draining you, what’s bringing you down, and put it on the to-stop-doing list.

I’ve even prioritized people in my life. As tough as it may sound, I know a lot of lovely people, and I simply don’t have time to keep up with them all. I do the best I can with the ones who are most important to me, and with the rest … well, let’s just say there will come a time when I create my own template letter like Mr. Bernard Shaw’s:

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You don’t have time for everything. You have one life, here on this Earth, and when it’s done, it’s done. There is no point in spending a single moment of that time doing something you don’t really want to do. Figure out which things you’re doing that don’t light you up, and stop doing them. Be ruthless.

What have you been saying yes to lately that’s getting in your way? How can you say no gracefully? What unnecessary tasks can you eliminate to free up your time for your more important work?

Resources

The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World by Chris Guillebeau

The School of Greatness: A Real-World Guide to Living Bigger, Loving Deeper, and Leaving a Legacy by Lewis Howes

Sorry. My heart says yes, but my schedule says no.

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