Oct 102011

I love the dogs in the Pixar movie, Up! The dogs, deep in conversation, will suddenly have their attention caught by something out of the corner of their eye, to which they instantly refocus and yell, “Squirrel!” There are days I am just like them – completely on task and then something grabs my attention, ripping it away. When I look back at what I was doing, I am completely lost and not sure what I was just working on.

For many years, I have suspected I had mild ADD – Attention Deficit Disorder. I skitter from interest to interest, never sticking to one thing very long. Some days I can’t concentrate on anything at all. However, once engaged in a task, I can lose myself in it for hours. Obviously, it was not  crippling enough to check into, but still I wondered if I should. I have a couple friends who had similar struggles who did get a diagnosis and the medicine helped them quite a bit. I continued to wonder and never quite got up the nerve to have it checked out until a couple of weeks ago.

After talking with the doctor, he came to the conclusion I do have a mild case of ADD, but he didn’t think it bad enough to consider medication. In his opinion, I had compensated just fine through my use of task lists. He felt the side effects would not be worth it. I had to agree. I still struggle focusing on most days, I know what to do about it.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. In fact, it is because of this frustration, I learned about David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD). Several years ago, I ranted to a friend about not getting anything accomplished that week. He suggested the book. It took me awhile to get through it, but once I did and started applying the practices, things began to get easier for me. I found it easier to focus on a single task because I could block out all the other thoughts that come crowding onto the stage of my mind.

Here are five steps I use to keep things moving in the direction I want.

  1. Get everything out of my head and onto a list. I do a mind sweep, where I write lists of things I need to do as quickly as possible. I don’t think about prioritizing, categorizing or calendaring them. I just get them onto a piece of paper. Once I slow down, which doesn’t take very long, I go back and do all the other things to put them into the correct list. I do this several times a week. I find that when I make the effort to do a mind sweep, I can only do it for about 5 minutes before my mind vapor locks and I have to do something else. That’s okay. Several short sessions each week keep things pretty clear. If it is on a list, my mind doesn’t feel like it has to keep reminding me constantly.
  2. Spend a few minutes each day prioritizing the high priority items to accomplish. I have built a discipline of taking 10 minutes at the beginning of the day, quickly looking over the lists to see what is critical for the day. Undoubtedly, something new pops up while doing this and I add them to the list. I use Toodledo for my lists and employee the ‘star’ to emphasize these tasks.
  3. Put the few critical items on a special list, away from the hundreds of others. By having a critical task list for the day, I have less distraction and can focus on just what I need to do today. The smaller list also helps me feel less overwhelmed. Having that list of five to ten items helps with rewards, too. I give myself a treat once I power through this list.
  4. Every time you find yourself off task, pull out the critical list and refocus. There are times I find myself doing something totally unrelated to the critical tasks, like surfing the net. I can’t even figure out how I got off task. Going back to the list reminds me what I was supposed to be doing and I can quickly jump back on task.
  5. Strive to check off at least one item each day. There are still days I am too scattered to get the list done. It isn’t even my fault sometimes, as unplanned meetings and drive by requests take their toll. On those days, I tell myself I still have to get at least one item checked off the list before I leave the office or go to bed. I have found this commitment keeps a little momentum going. Last night was one of those nights. I ended up staying up too late, but once I got going on checking off one item, I kept going and checked off six. Then I slept peacefully with a good conscious.

Next time you feel scattered and struggle to get something, anything done, try making a short critical list. See if it helps you focus and get at least one thing done. Good luck!

Jun 032011

I had one of the best science teachers in Mr. Ashcraft. He was everything one would want in a teacher: inventive, funny, engaging, knowledgable, passionate and concerned. Through challenging experiments and lively lectures, he lit up our interest in science. I looked forward to his class. I attacked research papers with eagerness. I even tried to unravel the math behind black hole research (I didn’t have a prayer in 9th grade).

I hadn’t given much thought to science, other than science fiction, prior to Mr. Ashcraft’s class. The biological sciences bored me. Physical science, though, turned me on. Fracturing rocks, learning weather patterns, and designing electrical circuits were fun.

About halfway through the year, Mr. Ashcraft pulled me aside and asked my future plans. Naturally, this ninth grader was clueless. Future? I was looking forward to lunch. He told me I should be a physicist. Perhaps even an astrophysicist. Now that sounded cool. Of course, I had to look up astrophysics, though. I didn’t know what it was. It is the study of the stars, planets and other celestial bodies. Even more cool!

That spark of interest took hold and set the tone of my studies from then on. I was going to be an astrophysicist. I found a loophole in the rules of our school district so I could skip biology and take physics and aeronautics instead. I took all the math classes, even though I didn’t really like them. I watched the new space shuttles launches, with the absolute certitude that I would work on them one day. Every research paper where I could control the topic was around space science.

On to college, I enrolled as a physics major and loaded up on the classes. That is when I ran into trouble. Calculus. My brick wall. I took the three required classes twice each over the next couple years and never understood the topic. It was horrible. Ever had that nightmare where you walk into the final exam and can’t understand a single question on the page? I lived that one in my last attempt. I turned that test in with only my name on it. Zero. Zip. I blanked on every question. I didn’t know where to start on a single problem. That ended my physics career. You can’t decipher the heavens if you can’t do the math.

It might be easy to say the end of my physics career was the important pivot point. Naturally, much changed as a result. However,  the more important pivot point was that moment of encouragement from Mr. Ashcraft. He saw a student who had an interest in something that was his passion. I, unfortunately, saw his advice as something I “had to do”, not something to “investigate”. I spent years pursuing his dream, rather than finding my own. Too late, I would see this as a pattern. Someone suggested I go to a Vo-tech school for computer programming. I signed up for a two year course, even though I didn’t have the passion for it. That resulted in a ten year career I didn’t really enjoy. A band teacher suggested a career in performance. Fortunately, I knew enough by then that I really hated practicing, a requirement for a performer. But that didn’t stop me from dreaming about it. I’ll admit I still do occasionally.

One of the things I inherited from my father was talent to do many things. He was a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none. I don’t believe he ever found his passion. I don’t know if I have found mine yet, although I believe I am closer than he ever was. I believe my passion to be in training, teaching, but not in a classroom. I also have a streak of entrepreneurship, along with a passion for achieving. Could I have discovered this without the experiences I have had? I really don’t know. Perhaps not. But decades of side tracks definitely have left me far from what I could have achieved.

While I don’t regret the pivot point of Jr. High science, I do believe I allowed it to get in the way of learning what I really would like to do. I have permitted, almost required, myself to chase every suggestion made to me by someone I admire. The problem with having many talents is everyone has advice. This has led me in so many different directions, sometimes I don’t know which way is “my” way. That is the journey I am on. It is interesting, not necessarily rewarding, often frustrating, yet perhaps more common than I think.

How about you? How have you found your passion? Who influenced you? Have you always known or has it come through years of wandering about? How did you recognize it? Please share your comments. I would love to hear them.

Mar 122011

Our guest writer is Thom Stratton. He has an MBA, worked on a newspaper, writes Simple Self Reliance (a blog on recapturing lost arts of doing it yourself), worked as a requirements analyst, actually understands social media marketing and is at least ten times smarter than me. He also started a business this year, too.

I’ve been watching my children this week, and I can’t quite come to a conclusion about their level of discipline. On the one hand, they can be very focused. They can spend hours busily working away on their latest Lego creation. Everything else is tuned out–the house could fall down around their ears and they’d notice only if it happened to effect what they are working on.

On the other hand, get them at the dinner table or working on homework, and the slightest distraction will have them completely off on a tangent for the next ten minutes. We can coax, cajole, threaten, and fume, but they will not focus to save their lives, no matter what they might be delaying with their distraction.Focused child

Now I’m sure most people can spot the problem right away: it all depends on whether they enjoy what they are doing or not. Playing is very, very important. Eating dinner or doing homework…well, not so much. The same laser-like focus that keeps them engaged in their fun will keep them engaged in ignoring whatever unpleasantness is before them.

We as adults have (hopefully) learned something our children have not: distraction and procrastination will not make the unpleasant task go away. It will still be there waiting for us. It’s better to just face it, dive in, and get it over with. Then we can move on to more enjoyable things.

Yes, we’ve all learned this valuable lesson, right? Sometimes I wonder. I think in some ways we’re still very much children. We just become more sophisticated in our avoidance tactics. It’s amazing how, when faced with an unpleasant task, I can be extremely productive–on every other task on my list. I can find tasks I never realized existed a few hours ago, but are now of such high priority that I simply must do them now instead of whatever it is I’m avoiding.

So I guess we’re not all that different from children. I’m not, at least. Then how do we, as adults, make ourselves do the things we don’t really want to do? I’m going to start looking into a few of the ways I do it and report back. In the mean time, here’s a post from Dan on one way he does it: Goals and Rewards.