To the Exclusion of Everything Else: Staying Focused

Resolution - better time management
Resolution - better time management (Photo credit: vpickering)

I am the victim of the curse of multitaskus distractus.

The illusion of its possibility is so tempting, to do all things all things both well and at the same time. it is such a real-seeming mirage, such a convincing virtual hallucination that I see on my screen’s multiple color-coded to-do lists every morning.

Look at all those shiny colorful icons for all the different agents simultaneously working together to unify my goals, fine tune my tasks, keep me organized, and get me where every one of ME wants to go. How could I fail with all this help? Well, trash that notion.

I hereby acknowledge that I must embrace MONOTASKING and hold onto it at least fleetingly but often with a white-knuckled grip if I am ever to FINISH anything–an accomplishment that seems somehow always to elude me, and moreso as the number of open apps increases and it gets easier and easier to switch between them. I spend more time outlining and making lists of my lists than I do doing the work. Is there no hope for me?

There is something to be said for the old days, when, if you were going to work on a project researching endangered species, you spread out all your proto-apps: encyclopedias and journals, your dictionary, thesaurus, pens, paper, erasers and paper clips. And you sat there in the library without food or drink, mind you, until the lady in the hushpuppies came and woke you up from your drooling slump, and sent you home.

Several of the writing exercises I’ve spent time on lately “for fun” have ended up on the Facebook Page for Goose Creek Press or on the blog or in a tweet or LinkedIn comment. Many of these should have been focused instead on writing about that same topic for the new book; or for the Land’s Sake presentation–destinations I should enter and not leave, no matter what, for not less than an uninterrupted hour. Deadlines loom. I am loosing sleep.

I know what I need to do. I need the hushpuppy lady to tell me to shut up and quit whining, sit still, finish my work, clean up after myself, and go home with some coffee-stained pages completed and gains made towards my supposed goals. But I browse. I gather snippets and pack my cheeks like an information gerbil to take back to my hole in the ground. I fire up Pandora and rock around the clock. I tweet, therefore, I am. Is there any hope for someone so genuinely interested in reaching the end of the Blue Line to arrive at the Emerald City when he keeps getting off the train for a latte and a magazine at every stop?

I’ve gone back to FocusBooster. I’ve created a spreadsheet (yes, one more distraction) where, first thing, I commit to so many focus booster sessions (set at 25 min on 5 off) for each project or subproject each day and check them off as they’re done. Or not. This is helping. But this is yet one more THING that is not the goal but is merely points towards it. But perhaps this committment is a self-imposed “binding device“?

What’s that, you ask? If you’re really interested in changing your habits that are leading you to disappointment in goal achievement, you might want to know the word “akrasia.” It won’t insure you’ll do better. But you’ll at least be able to explain your miserable track record in exquisite psychological detail. Then go eat some ice cream. This niggling determination to do better will pass before you get to the bottom of the carton. Or the ice cream calories get to yours.

Habits: How They Form And How To Break Them : NPR

Beeminder: Light a Fire Under Your Own Butt

How To Do What You Want: Akrasia and Self-Binding | Beeminder Blog

You somehow don’t do what you genuinely want to do. Philosophers back to Plato and Aristotle have a fancy term for this paradoxical failure of the will: akrasia. It encompasses procrastination, lack of self-control, lack of follow-through, and any kind of addictive behavior. Another way to define akrasia is by generalizing from procrastination to include preproperation as well. Procrastination is the irrational delay of tasks with immediate cost and delayed benefit. Preproperation is the irrational not delaying of (overindulgence in) activities with immediate benefit and delayed cost.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. One thing I’m learning, if poorly, is that nothing ever goes as planned. Everything takes longer than I expect it to, which causes me stress as unfinished things pile up as I get deeper into the day. I do a lot better when I plan to do less in a day than I think I can do. Weird.

  2. For what it’s worth…I am trying to schedule Focus Days on my calendar. Recurring days every two weeks with specific areas of interest to focus on. That’s what I spend a big chunk of my “on-line” day on. The next day I’ll focus on the next area. What gets completed gets done, what isn’t done will float to the top in two weeks.

    Is it working? Sometimes…Somewhat.

    But, anyone with varied interests who has the ability to get online will find themselves following an interesting tangent more than once each day. And sometimes those tangents end up finding their way into my schedule.

  3. “I spend more time outlining and making lists of my lists than I do doing the work. Is there no hope for me?”


    You learned time management concepts with a brain that evolved because it could respond to crises FIRST. There is a pun in that somewhere, but I don’t have time to develop it.

  4. You are defintiely a preproperator, not a procratinator. (How do you pronounce that new word, anyway?) The internet is just too much fun, too addictive. Overindulgence is what addicts do. I bet you have read a lot about these new addictions that the Internet has aroused, and what people are doing to try to get their addictive behavior under control. Good luck, Fred. You need a support group, me thinks!

  5. That’s “a-crazy-a”? I have no lists, ok a few lists, but I do have a sign up that reads “I have all the time I need and want to do all the things I need and want to do.” It helps me prioritize and relax. Good luck, I think you need a group too, but when would you find time.

  6. Love the links here.

    I call it cognitus interruptus, and it’s a terrible disease. Was it Franzen who said he completely unplugs when writing? Of course, we can’t do that when researching for a piece we intend to write. Oh, the hazards.

    Off to follow links… 😉