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October 26, 2011

Conservation of Focus

by Michael Langlois

Trust me, this place is gonna have the best basketball court ever!

As I’ve said before, I’m not great at taking advice.  However, on the rare occasion that a good idea can make it past my thick skull, I like to mention it.

Here are some facts:

  • Like physical endurance, you only have so much mental focus to expend on a given day.
  • Like physical activities, some forms of mental effort are much more taxing than others.

Duh, right?  Folks like Tim Ferriss, David Rock, and Leo Babauta have been preaching this forever.   But how many people actually prioritize around these two facts?

I never did.  For years, I used time as my only real qualifier for getting work done.  Did I have an open spot in the day or not?  How long was it?  If I could get an hour to write in an otherwise busy day, I’d take it.  The dumb part is that I never took into account what I was doing before that slot.

We instinctively understand that an intense weight-lifting session is probably a bad idea right before showing up for your swim competition, but we don’t have a similar grasp of mental activity.  We’re told that sitting down to think is just a matter of discipline and time management.  And if you don’t get anything done, then you suck and just need to try harder.

That’s crap.  You have a reserve of mental endurance, let’s call it focus, and there simply may not be enough left  to spend on tasks that have a very high burn rate.

From a writing perspective, content creation, which includes heavy revision, is a high burn rate activity.  Do it first, or if you can only clear the time late in the day, be as much of a mental lazy ass as possible before that time (I probably don’t need to mention that I’m an expert on the lazy ass part).  Fill the rest of the time with low demand tasks: do some research, answer mail, blog, look up that rule about Oxford commas that you keep putting off.  Tweet.

And you don’t have to veg out in front of the TV as soon as you’re too tired to keep up with a high burn rate activity.  When a jogger gets tired, they don’t stretch out on the road, they walk.  Low demand mental tasks can still be done after you’ve completed the tough stuff, and for a much longer period of time.

If I were clever, I’d do the heavy lifting part of my writing day early so that I’m sure to get it in.  Unfortunately, I hate mornings, so I try to conserve until later in the day.  If I know that I have to do a lot of braining (it’s clearly a word, I just used it) before my normal writing slot, then I’ll suck it up and write earlier.

Also, if your day job is going to require a ton of focus on a particular day, give yourself the option of sticking to the low demand stuff.  Recognize that you may not be able to sustain two high burn activities in one day.  It’s cool, you’re only human.  A word of caution: there’s a difference between entertainment and rest.  High involvement video games, especially multiplayer stuff, is not a recovery tactic.  It can easily be a high burn activity.

All of this is obvious in hindsight.  I just never put two and two together and actually made a conscious effort to protect my reserve of focus, and spend it in the right place.  That one change made a huge difference in the time it takes me to write a book.  As in about fifty percent huge.

Bottom line: If you’re in a creative business like writing, give some thought to the conservation of focus.  It really does make a difference.

Read more from Blog Posts, Writing

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