The often-used phrase “pay attention” is apt: you dispose of a limited budget of attention that you can allocate to activities, and if you try to go beyond your budget, you will fail. — Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
2020 rolls off your tongue with power and promise. It’s fun to imagine that we’re all delivered to exactly this moment in time that’s magically brimming with unfulfilled potential. And yet, isn’t that every moment?
In 2019 I devoured stacks of books about the human mind. Amidst all of the perspective-shifting facts and thought-expanding theories, a clear and consistent theme emerged: Our brains are fantastically complex but also incredibly incompetent machines for handling much of what we throw at them. If you are hunting success (no matter how you choose to define it), your primary job is to use your mind for what it’s meant for and to guard against the rest—people, things, yourself. Anything that reframes or distorts your focus.
2020 is synonymous with perfect vision. But what good is seeing clearly if you don’t know how and where to direct your focus? Fighter pilot sight won’t help you see the tiger that’s lurking behind you.
Lack of focus looks like a lot of different things. But no matter the disguise, the impact can be substantial.
Busy Being Busy
One of my biggest focus foes this last year was the busyness trap. It’s very easy to be incredibly busy while making absolutely zero progress. It’s demoralizing to exhaust your energies by staying in place. But it’s oh so tempting just the same. There’s comfort in busy work. We feed ourselves the excuse that we’re accomplishing things by incessantly checking our Inboxes. Shocker to no one: we’re not.
I wish I could say that as soon as I realized this was a problem I fixed it immediately. But recovery from this pernicious preoccupation is a rough and painful process. In April I decided it was time to hire an assistant. I was drowning and had no idea how I’d manage to keep holding it all together (though it’s doubtful I ever did that very convincingly). So we wrote a job description and posted it on the usual job sites. We interviewed, checked references, and finally arrived at our star candidate.
But it was a total failure.
I was too busy to take the time to save myself from being busy. How was I supposed to find the time to excavate the mountains of information, the information any assistant would need in order to effectively do their job, buried exclusively in the recesses of my skull?
So we tried again. And we failed. Again.
Third time’s the charm, right? Ha.
After three failures I was tentative and a little terrified. I shared my fears during a mini-breakdown with a group of our mentors. They asked me a few questions:
- What mistakes was I making?
- Was I clear about what I needed?
- What did I need to do to make the next attempt a success?
There was an uncomfortable commonality in all of those questions: Me. My first reaction was to push back (I’m not always graceful when receiving criticism). Later, I swallowed the hard truth. I needed to confront myself if I was ever going to make this work. I made a list of all of the places where things went wrong. I wrote a proper job description. And I started documenting EVERYTHING.
I still find myself falling into the busy trap—correcting people’s mistakes rather than refining the process, turning to my email rather than tackling the big, looming task on my to do list. But the difference is that now I also know how to catch myself.
The lure of busy can also be a useful tool. When the busy bee buzzes its wings, I try to pause. What am I avoiding? What is truly important and what is nothing more than an insignificant task parading around as an oppressive despot? Where do I want to aim my focus?
I’ve found a way to transform this aggressive adversary into an indispensable ally.
For 2020, I’m honing perfect vision directed with laser precision.