Focus

Our culture seems to be a little addicted to overwork. I mean, working hard, putting effort in, getting heaps done. That’s all good, isn’t it? That’s valuable. That makes us feel like productive members of society.

We can tell ourselves that we are working and that it’s all goodness and duty, but maybe sometimes we are working long hours to avoid our families, or our feelings, or ourselves.

And just because we are putting long hours in, doesn’t necessarily mean we are getting heaps done.

Moz remembers a time when he was doing a night shift. He and his boss worked until around 3am when they realised that their productivity and efficiency had gone right down. They chose to take a nap for a couple of hours and then get back on with it. They finished up at around 7am.

If they had worked through, they probably would have still finished at around 7am. The nap gave them the boost of energy they needed to work efficiently for the rest of the night.

In a similar way, the other week my pastor took a mental health day. He works six days a week and after a while he got a bit tired. (Fair enough!) By taking a mental health day he could come back to work refreshed and get more done, more efficiently. 

But I hope you notice that there’s a word that keeps coming up in this discussion, and that’s ‘efficient’.

A business in the UK (Voucher Cloud) surveyed 1989 workers and asked them how many hours they would actually work in an 8-hour day. The answer averaged out at just under 3 hours a day. What did they do for the rest of the work day? They read the news, chatted, made snacks and hot drinks, made phone calls, and even applied for new jobs! 

By working efficiently and effectively, you can get more done in less time and free up time to do what you love.

There are several tricks that you can use to get this efficiency and sense of focus.

Firstly, it is a good idea to figure out what you are working on right now. Make a list, prioritise, and then focus on the job that is the top of the list. If you’re jumping from job to job, you’re not going to make a dent in any of the tasks you need to achieve. Find one task, focus on that one, and get it done.

You can trick your brain into getting into work quickly by using separate spaces for different activities.

If your brain knows that this is a ‘work space’ then it will get into work mode much more easily. 

Caleb (my son) worked this out during the COVID year when he had to do his university studies from home. He had a desk and a desktop computer where he could have listened to lectures and worked on his assignments. The problem was, that desk was where he played his computer games. So when he tried to work at that desk, his brain told him that it was a gaming space. He did much better when he worked on his university assignments at the dining table, and relaxed by playing computer games at his desk.

As I do all my work from home, I need to do the same thing. I have a desk, an office space that I use for editing work and administration. When I want to write my novel or work on something creative I often move to the dining table, or even take my laptop to a café so that I can be in a different frame of mind. To relax, I head up to the lounge room. But I try not to do any work sitting on the couch. That is my relaxation space.

Another way to keep focus is to get rid of interruptions or distractions.

I used to keep Facebook and Twitter open on my desk top so that I could look at it for a ‘break’ through my work day. But I realised just how much I was being derailed by that, so now I usually peruse the socials on my phone in my relaxation place, rather than on my computer in my admin place.

And when I really REALLY need to focus I bring in another technique. This is the Pomodoro technique. Named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer. Remember those?

I set the timer on my phone for 25 minutes. During that time I am completely focused. I do nothing else. No phone calls, no socials, no email. The job is the thing. I do the job. Then, the timer goes off and I give myself a five minute break. I walk around. I stretch. Then it’s back for another 25 minute work session and so on until I get the job done.

Studies show that it takes 5-10 minutes to refocus after an interruption. That is why it is so important to keep your phone on silent and your socials closed, and even to turn your email off while you focus on a task. 

Speaking of email, the best way that I have heard to deal with that constant interrupter is to only check your email three times a day and to deal with it as you check it. Schedule it in, like a meeting. That way it doesn’t derail your other good and focused work.

I don’t have a problem with good productive work. But I do have a problem if it takes over your whole life and leaves you no time for anything else. And one way that I see that happening is if you half-work when you should be focusing. It means your work drags out, doesn’t get done, comes home in the evening, takes over your weekend.

Instead, try setting a timer and really focusing on your work. That way, when you get it done you can really relax, have some fun, be creative, play, with no guilt at all.

What do you use to help you focus?

One thing at a time

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I can’t remember where I read this advice, and I really wish I could. It was in a book about calming your days, feeling more at peace, dealing with technology better. The advice was do one thing at a time.

I have been watching myself lately and I haven’t been following this advice.

I have been playing solitaire on my phone while watching TV.

Scrolling through Facebook while eating breakfast.

Listening to a podcast and playing solitaire while eating lunch.

I realised this was really a problem for me when I caught myself trying to play solitaire on my phone while I was reading a book. It doesn’t work.

On Sunday night I decided that I wanted to relax and just watch the program I was watching on TV. The program was Grand Designs (I’m a bit of a tragic) and you’re not going to get much out of that if you aren’t looking at the screen. You don’t see the houses.

I sat back on the couch and I watched.

It was difficult. I wanted to distract myself with my computer or my phone. But I kept at it. And it was refreshing, it really was, just to let my brain do one thing at once.

I think I need to push myself on this one.

I need to eat when I’m eating – not watch TV, not read, not scroll through Facebook. Just enjoy the food, taste it, smell it, really appreciate what I’m eating.

I need to watch TV when I’m watching, and read when I’m reading.

I need to remember to turn the wifi off when I’m writing and allow myself to sink deeply into the writing process (I am a bit better with this one).

Sometimes it’s good to do two things at once – some tasks work well together. I like listening to podcasts while walking because the story keeps me going when I would otherwise get bored and head for home. But at the same time, sometimes on my walks I need to turn the noise off and just let myself think.

I’ve been doing some data-entry work lately and listening to audio books has been great to keep me on-task. But it can’t be a book I care deeply about because if I have to think about the work at all then I miss what the narrator is saying. However, I think that the multi-tasking in that situation has worked well.

This world is so full of distractions that it is difficult to concentrate on one thing for any length of time. But I think that’s a muscle worth developing so I’m going to work harder to simplify.

Some good books on this subject are Single Tasking by Devora Zack, and Deep Work by Cal Newport. Also, at the end of Women Food and God by Geneen Roth there is a list of rules for eating which includes:

Eat without distractions. Distractions include radio, television, newspapers, books, intense or anxiety-producing conversations or music.

How about you? Do you love to multi-task? Are you addicted to distractions? What do you think about doing only one thing at once?

Unintended Seasons

Universe says no

You might be saying, ‘Ok Ruth, that’s all well and good, but I had plans, good plans, and I’ve put aside time to follow them, and I’m going fine down the road and I’ve just hit a massive road block. What now?’

What happens when life says no to you? When you’ve done all the right things, followed all the steps for success, held on until the season seemed right, gone for it, and then…BAM. When the amount of flexibility you need to deal with what life throws at you is about the same as a roller-skater going under the limbo pole that’s 10 cm off the ground?

I haven’t really gone through this myself, but you might be able to take some tips from what my mother has gone through.

My mother is a concert pianist. As kids we took it for granted. Didn’t everyone go and watch their mother perform? Hadn’t everyone’s mother been recorded and played on ABC radio? No, of course not, we knew that, but it takes a while for kids to appreciate how special their own mother’s talent is, I think. I found out recently that at 15 years of age my mum won a concerto contest and played a movement of Beethoven’s first piano concerto with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. That’s pretty impressive if you ask me, and there were many more triumphs to follow.

Mum’s playing sometimes took a front seat, like when she and Dad moved to the USA for ten years to work with the Christian Performing Arts Fellowship, and sometimes it took more of a back seat, like when she was raising us kids. It was always a joint decision between Mum and Dad as to which direction they took their lives.

But some years ago now, when Mum and Dad were in the USA, they noticed an increased stiffness and weakness in Mum’s right arm and hand. It didn’t go away so they came back to Australia to start looking into medical options. Mum was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.

It was really frustrating for her. She could still play beautifully and better than most people, but she couldn’t play to the standard that she wanted to. The concerts and recordings were taken away from her and it definitely wasn’t her choice.

Sometimes seasons change for us and we don’t want them to at all. But we still have a choice as to how we deal with that situation.

Don’t get me wrong. You need to grieve when you have something like that ripped away from you. It’s not fair, and it’s definitely not fun.

But, well, I’ll show you what Mum did.

She changed her focus. She still played piano but she chose to use this moment to focus on another part of music that was very close to her heart – choral work.

At the moment Mum leads two choral groups and is part of a third. One choir leads the singing at the church where she is music minister, one choir performs in old people’s homes and regional festivals and all sorts of places, one choir does more semi-professional oratorio works. Mum is still surrounded by music and still giving so much to the people around her.

Sometimes life says no to you. The trick seems to be finding the new thing in the new season that can give you life and fulfilment. Being grateful for what you still have (no matter how small) and being able to reach out to others through that.

I have another friend Mandy who has been crippled with chronic fatigue. She is unable to work, unable to do anything most days but sit in the garden and occasionally walk to the end of her driveway. But somehow she still manages to post little tidbits and photos on Facebook that enrich the lives of those of us who read them.

Nobody wants these seasons. They are no fun. They are not what we planned and not what we’d do if we were in charge. If you are going through something like this I am so sorry.

I hope that you can find a spark to help you through it, maybe a change of plan, maybe a little joy that you can give to others, or maybe there’s another way of coping that I don’t know about – feel free to post in the comments if you have wisdom to share. I hope that I can remember some of this (or that someone will gently remind me) if I become the one stuck in the roadblock.

We have a special treat today – Mandy has given me two of her poems about this roadblock stage in her life to share with you.

So This – Lot’s Wife.
By Mandy Langlois

Like Lot’s wife I stand
Petrified
For an eternity
Looking back at the destruction
Wondering at the enormity of the loss
Caught between what was what is and what might have been…

So this is what it feels like to be
Turned to a pillar of salt.

The sharp sting of it.

The cruel toxic cut
searing the soul’s tongue with acid intent.

Crammed in, rammed in
Enshrined
Entombed
Buried alive

Captured, caught
Mortified, fossilised, immortalised…
A moment becomes a day,
Becomes a year
Becomes eternity.

Night Vision
by Mandy Langlois

Give me night vision,
let me sing in the dark.
When my eyes are closed,
let me sense light beyond my own limitations.

Let hope lead me and be my guide,
even when fear is my companion.
Let me know there is a path leading to a place of peace.
Let me find my way to believe again.        

The night bird is singing alone in the dark,
her song is a melody of life,
of strength
and of beauty.

If you want to read more of Mandy’s work, her Facebook page is called Mandy’s Book Nook. As always, I encourage you to sign up on WordPress to get this blog delivered to your email inbox, or to drop me a line on rijamos@gmail.com to get my regular writerly email. And again, the wonderful artwork for these posts is from @deteor42 on instagram.