Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Focus, Part 1

I have a terrible time with focus. I don't have ADD; I can concentrate on things I enjoy. Most of my focus problem comes with getting things done - and particularly at work.

Over time I've bought book after book on time and task management. They generally help, if only for a little while. Sometimes all I want is a tool or a hack or a technique that will work in the short run.

I work in software maintenance, which (in my case) means that nothing is truly finished. We also write a lot of trial stuff that ends up being abandoned. If you get your kicks from solving one problem and moving on to another, this really isn't the best place to be.

For me, it helps to break everything into pieces and tackle them one at a time. Unfortunately I'm on a project now where a lot of my tasks are backed up due to missing pieces in other areas. In short, the project isn't going well, and it's sapping my energy.

One thing I need to do is enable the screen saver on my office system, and set up a marquee that says "Chop wood, carry water." It's one of those very old, very well-known Zen phrases that may or may not be terribly obvious. For me, it's a reminder to do the work that is at hand and do it well; when it's done move onto the next task, doing that one also as well as you can. It's similar in nature, I think, to the Zen phrase "Just this." Just this; what is in front of me is what I need to do; what comes after will make itself apparent in its own time.

I left my copy of "Constructive Living" at work, unfortunately. I want to re-read it in a concentrated fashion. A major tenet of Constructive Living is to be aware of, alert to, your feelings, but to act, nonetheless. It's so easy to get tied up in planning and what-ifs. That's what's tying me up in the office right now. My supervisor told me very plainly last week to enjoy the process we're in because the result isn't really predictable, but I'm struggling because I want to know where I'm going - otherwise how will I know whether I've succeeded?

Oh. Because the project will be over and I will have my sanity, my fingernails, sobriety, etc. Because the project will be over and I will not have allowed it to "own" me. (And if I concentrate and work well at the office, the project won't have to own me.)

Those ideas - "Chop wood" and constructive living - are two different philosophies on how to proceed, of course, but either of them is more helpful than the complete lack of focus I've been struggling with. Whichever one helps me focus at a particular time, works for me.

As for hacks - small tricks - I've noticed that I work better, the more formally dressed I am. I work in a very casual environment, so dressing up tends to make me stand out - not always a good thing. But I think I'll have to dig through the closet and dress up a bit more than usual tomorrow. The more professional I feel, the more professionally I work - not always, but often.

These are exactly the kinds of things I mean by "Thinking Constructively." It's a process of identifying the discomforts in my environment and/or in my thinking, and then figure out how to make them less uncomfortable or less important. I can change behaviors and thought patterns that aren't serving me well. I have to know what they are, know their effect, and come up with a way around or through them.

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