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It’s Hard To Focus If You Can’t Find Anything

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Click for photo One of the oft overlooked rules of focus and concentration is that friction must be avoided at all costs.  Friction in this sense can be defined as anything that pulls you out of your zone and slows down forward momentum.  As an example, frequent interruptions induce loads of friction for anything involving deep focus.  But there are other things.  Have you ever sat down to do something important and realized you forgot to grab something critical to your effort?  Like a notebook full of notes or a file off of your office computer?  Or have you ever rushed out of the house just to realize 15 minutes later that you have to turn around because you forgot your briefcase/purse/laptop bag?  Not being able to find the things you need makes it difficult to focus on anything! 

Sometimes it’s hard to even realize that this is what’s happening to you.  It sounds a little crazy, but some people are so used to not being organized, they think it’s normal to spend 30-50% of their time just gathering what they need instead of actually doing the thing they set out to do.  Naturally this means the effort either takes 30-50% longer – or worse, is rushed… sacrificing quality in the process.

Speaking from personal experience, at some point years ago I got so frustrated with forgetting things that I put some systems in place to prevent this from happening again.  Of course it does still happen every once in a while but it’s far less frequent these days than it used to be.

Look, it’s just far easier to stay organized than it is to deal with the ramifications of not being organized.  Having a base level of organizational ability will “grease the skids” and make any effort far more effortless.  But like anything else, it requires a little effort to first know what to do, and then secondly form a long-term habit to make sure it sticks.

Here are some of the things you can do to keep yourself from getting caught in friction.

Everything should have a home

Every single physical or digital object in your life should have a home.  When something isn’t in its home, it should be because it’s on your person – or because it’s being used in some way.  This means that at any given time, your keys aren’t sitting on top of the television (unless that’s where they always go) and your remote control isn’t in your coat pocket.  Things should leave their home for use and then be placed back where they belong when finished.  If this can’t happen right away, you should look at this as another thing to “bounce at zero”, trying to get things to their home every 24-48 hours.

Here are some examples:

  • Always keep your keys by the front door.  Get into the habit of placing them there as soon as you unlock the door and walk into your home.  This way they will always be there when you’re ready to leave, and other members of your household will know where they are as well.
  • Place your purse or bag in the same spot when you enter your home.
  • Every time you get undressed, empty your pockets onto a single surface.
  • Get a charging station and setup everything you need to charge.  No more forgetting one thing if they’re all sitting right next to each other.

Of course, this same thing applies to computer files as well.  While desktop and email search has improved quite a bit over the last four or five years, it’s still useful to keep your files organized in a way that you can always find the thing you’re looking for when you need it.  On Windows Vista and Windows 7, this means keeping everything in your “C:\Users\Your Name” folder in the right spot (Documents, Music, Pictures, Contacts, and so on).  The Mac has an equivalent folder structure with Home folders.

The folder you’ll likely spend the most time in is Documents, which means it should be broken down further.  I prefer to do this by “type” of document, so my Documents folder looks something like this:

  • Business
  • Finances
  • Goals and Plans
  • Health, Fitness, and Martial Arts
  • Messages
  • Notebooks
  • Parenthood and Pets
  • Software Development
  • Weblog Posts

However you choose to organize your files, just remember that everything should have a home!  And unlike physical objects, you don’t actually have to remove something from its home just to work on it.

Here’s a fun way to remind yourself of this one (from Happy Gilmore – audio isn’t safe for work!)

Pull important information out of its source and centralize it

If you’re storing important information in a pile on your counter or deep within email you’ve received, there’s no way you’ll find it when you need it.  Yank it out and centralize it someplace you’ll always have with you, ready to go.  I do this using Evernote but there are dozens of viable solutions for this (paper notebooks, online services, etc.)  Some examples of this:

  • Copy important information from the web into a digital notebook like Evernote or OneNote instead of using Favorites/Bookmarks.  If you bookmark something, it’s impossible to know what it is you bookmarked it for at a glance, which means you’ll have to read it again!
  • Tear magazine articles out to take quick notes on the article (or just to find it online) – then throw it out.
  • Keep a notebook near the book you’re reading to jot notes down immediately, which you can then put into your centralized notebook each week (if you have a Kindle, this is a lot easier).
  • Take pictures of things you want to remember with a cameraphone (i.e. drawings on a whiteboard) and send them to yourself to file in your notebook – or just add them directly if you can (the reason I use Evernote).

Doing this, you’ll never forget that one important thing – because all the important information is always with you, even if the source material isn’t.

Digital files should be available wherever you are

Your files should roam with you so that you’ll always have them when you need them.  Us geeks call this “placeshifting” because location isn’t important – what matters is that you’ll never worry about being without your files.  There are a few ways to make this happen: 1) Store the files you need on an online service like Windows Live SkyDrive (25GB free), 2) Carry around a thumbdrive with your most important files, or 3) Synchronize files across your machines automatically or on-demand.

Storing files online doesn’t work well for me because it presupposes that you know what you’re going to need.  Online storage is expensive (very expensive) for service providers, so you probably won’t have enough space to roam everything you need to access.  The thumbdrive plan has the same drawbacks: if you didn’t grab the right file upfront, there’s not much you’ll be able to do about it.  This is why sync works really well.

Windows Live Sync

My service of choice is Windows Live Sync.  You install a small utility on your PCs or Macs and setup folders to synchronize automatically across them.  You can even browse your PCs remotely if you forgot something and either setup sync immediately or just grab that one file.  Your files will always be available!  This service has always felt like magic to me: make a change to a file on computer A and it will be available seconds later on computer B.

Disclaimer: I work at Microsoft on Windows Live.

Hope this was helpful! Remember: you can’t get into deep focus if you don’t have everything you need handy!  You’ll expend effort getting things organized instead of getting things done.  Follow a few simple steps and make sure you can always direct your energy to the task at hand.

Written by Mike Torres

June 21st, 2009 at 2:02 pm

  • Thanks for the tip on Live Sync! I use dropbox myself, but this may be easier than throwing everything in one folder.

  • Thanks for the tip on Live Sync! I use dropbox myself, but this may be easier than throwing everything in one folder.

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