Find Your Sweet Spot and Focus – From Dr. Christine Carter

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Thanks for the amazing range of comments to last week’s RFL about how you find your sweet spot (I used random.org to choose three book winners from the 76 submissions).  Today I am lending RFL to Dr. Christine Carter for her thoughts:

I’ve loved reading how people find their groove, or their sweet spot! I particularly like Muriel Hughes’s very practical plan for getting a difficult task done; in this case, the astonishingly difficult task of writing a eulogy for her brother and law partner of many years. Her plan:

“First, I brainstorm with others and talk it through. Secondly, I outline a plan. Thirdly, I sleep on it and let my brain work through it and recharge. Finally I tackle the hardest task first thing in the morning.”

Muriel’s plan is something that would work for me—as long as I continue to also do the things that I need to do to focus. I’m naturally very distractible and messy – a “big-picture thinker, but not so much a detail person,” as my father would often euphemize when I was younger. I’m often tempted to work on a lot of things at once, inefficiently, and without finishing much. This tendency can wreak havoc on my ability to get anything done as a writer.

I work from home most of the time, so the pull of all the things that I could be doing instead of writing is usually more powerful than any intention I have to just focus.

(Some of the things that tempted me this morning: the laundry, the breakfast dishes that didn’t fit in the dishwasher, chatting with my neighbor, retrieving the dog’s ball from behind the sofa so he stopped barking at it, e-mail, texts, a quick thank-you note, bills, yesterday’s mail, and chatting with my husband on the phone.)

I had to carefully construct a work structure for myself that would support focus rather than allow me to hop from one easy but not important task to another.

Forcing myself to stop multitasking was a process. I had to create a formal ritual to get myself into the zone. Here it is:

  • As I’m brewing myself a second cup of coffee or tea, I take a quick peek at my calendar and e-mail on my phone. Is there anything urgent? It’s a check that keeps me from worrying while I write that I should have checked my e-mail, and keeps me from wondering if there is anything on my calendar that I should be preparing for. Then I head up to my office, with my coffee and a full glass of water. (I’ve also had a snack and used the restroom. I’m like a toddler going on a car trip.)
  • I do a quick cleanup, removing yesterday’s coffee cup from my desk, closing books left open, putting pens back in their place. I put all visual clutter in deceivingly neat piles. I put my phone in do-not-disturb mode, and close any unnecessary applications or windows that are open on my computer. I launch Pandora and choose the “listen while writing” radio station I’ve created (mostly classical piano because it doesn’t distract me like music with lyrics does). I tell Buster, my trusty canine colleague, to go to his “place” – a bed right next to me where he’s trained to stay while I work.
  • I write at a standing desk that has a small treadmill under it. When I’m ready to start writing, I start the treadmill. Walking slowly while I work has a lot of positive outcomes; one of them is that it more or less chains me to my desk. Finally, I launch the app 30/30, which times my writing and break time.

At first, I actually felt guilty for carving out such dedicated time to focus on my writing. Perhaps that sounds ridiculous – it’s my jobafter all! But honestly, I felt like I should be more responsive to my colleagues’ e-mails throughout the day, and I shouldn’t be creating the scheduling nightmares that blocking off dedicated work time does. It’s very hard to schedule a meeting with me in the morning, when I do my best writing, or in the afternoon, when I sometimes pick up my children from school. This means that it’s pretty hard to get me to go to a meeting.

Your milieu may be different. You may be in an office, in retirement, or on the road. But the lesson is the same. Where you need to do your best work, sometimes hardest work, you’re best to prepare your mind by carefully preparing your surroundings.

If you want to learn more practical ideas and the science of productivity, check out Christine’s book, The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work.

Lead with your best self,

Dan

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