By David Koch, CFP®, AIF®, CFA, Senior Wealth Advisor
While not a “financial” post here, in this post-COVID world, many of us have found ourselves working in a markedly non-work environment. We may not longer have chatty coworkers distracting us (I’m as guilty as anyone here) but there are myriad new distractions to taunt us. From pets to lawn mowers, to the neighbor’s kid’s trumpet lessons – it is more important now than just a few years ago to learn how to pay attention to our own attention.
The irony of how long it took me to finish this article was never lost. It was right there, taunting me from my “Writing” folder on my computer. The challenge wasn’t just to finish it; the challenge was – what hasn’t already been written about focusing already?
The Laser and the Lantern
In my experience there are two types of focus, the first I call the laser and the second I call the lantern. I don’t think I invented these terms, but I find them quite accurate. When we think of focus, we’re usually thinking of the laser. This is when you point your mind at a specific task that is all-consuming. This is when you are doing some heavy reading or working on a complex task. The laser is useful when you’re trying to write a paper or solve a problem.
The lantern is another animal – that I think doesn’t get nearly the same amount of, pun intended, attention. The lantern in military terms is often called situational awareness. When in lantern mode, you’re not focused on any one thing, your attention instead is on everything. Think about how you feel when you’re playing a team sport, or walking through a campground at night, or riding a bike in the fog.
The lantern is as important as the laser. I think you will benefit in learning how to shift back and forth between them.
The Second Order
Let’s put the laser and the lantern – what I call the first order of focus – aside for a moment. I’d like to dive into what I call the second order of focus: The amount of attention you’re giving to whether or not you’re still paying attention.
The reason behind my writing about this stems from several conversations I’ve had recently about audiobooks. I am what you may call a “non-reader.” I have a hard time sitting still, and to be frank, I have probably read less than 20 physical books in the last 20 years. If I’m going to buckle down and read something, most likely it is going to be some boring, technical finance white paper, not a book.
I do, however, absolutely crush audiobooks, and usually at 1.5x speed. I have gone through everything of interest at the actual library and consume about 20 books per year via Audible (plus I follow about a half-dozen podcasts).
I have recently heard in conversation someone say something like, “Oh, I’m not good at audiobooks, I just can’t follow them, my mind wanders, and I lose my place.” That’s when I always retort with, “Of course you can be, you just need to practice.” But then I got to thinking, practice what? What skill are you really developing? My wife will attest that I’m not a particularly good listener, so what makes me so good at “reading” audiobooks?
The skill is in knowing when you’re not focused anymore. Your mind will wander; that is a fact. You cannot stop your mind from wandering, but you CAN be acutely aware when it does. This is the second order of focus. If your mind wanders over to something you need to ponder at this moment, hit pause – either literally on the tape deck, or figuratively, on whatever you happen to be working on – and let it ponder what you need to be in the moment with. Once you’re done, get back on task.
Some say the key to focus is turning off your distractions, turning your phone off and finding a quiet place, for example. Others say they need music, or another form of minor distraction that drowns out the rest of the world. I also believe it depends on what you’re trying to focus on. For example, if you’re trying to do some creative writing, for me anyway, listening to music with words can be very distracting. However, if I’m working on a spreadsheet, it doesn’t matter if I’m singing along to some Sublime, the words don’t get in the way of the numbers.
I also believe that there’s a difference between grinding out a spreadsheet and doing something creative. Whereas analytical work needs to be grinded-out, I find creative work often needs an incubation period. An incubation period is necessary when your focus is yielding less and less fruit, and you’re seeing diminishing returns on your effort. Pack it up and sleep on it; come back later with a fresh pair of eyes.
During that incubation period one of the most helpful things for me has been to make sure I always have a notepad. You never know when you’ll be struck with creativity; you could be walking, or you could be driving north on the 405 right when the epiphany strikes. If you don’t have a notepad, leave yourself a voicemail. Better yet, if you find yourself doing this often, get a Google Voice number and leave yourself a voicemail there – they’ll transcribe it for you. Full disclaimer, 2/3rds of this piece was transcribed via Google Voice.
What to do when the caffeine isn’t working? Go with the Flow
Working from home is hard for some people. The isolation, the stagnation. Where is the water cooler on Microsoft Teams? There are days where I can reference how many times that I went to the fridge based on my steps tracker on my smartwatch. It is important for both physical and mental health to get the blood moving, and it is also critical for focus.
When you’re in focus you know it; it’s time to buckle down and get stuff done. But when you’re not in focus then sitting staring in front of a screen is a pretty useless endeavor. When you have the laser focus, make sure you’re using it wisely, but when you don’t have the laser, step away. Go do something and switch to lantern and allow your focus to shift its focus.
When the laser is out of juice, let your mind go into lantern mode. Take a walk or a jog around the block or take a cold shower even. Get out of the house or the office and get some sunshine and fresh air; go on a walk, do 10 minutes of yoga, or burpees, deep breathing exercises, watch a YouTube clip of some stand-up comedy, jump in place, do sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups. 50 years ago they called this a “cigarette break” and it was totally acceptable and expected. Just because you may not smoke, doesn’t mean you don’t get a break too. Go give yourself a little lantern time – embrace the lantern!
Some use the “Pomodoro Method,” where you take a five-minute break every 25 minutes. If you haven’t heard of it already, pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato and the idea allegedly started by using a little tomato-shaped kitchen timer. You can use this website to run your own timer online, or you may find one of these helpful. A lot of people find this strategy works well for them.
Remember, pay attention to your attention. Your mind will wander, just make sure it doesn’t go so far that you can’t find your trailhead.
And if you would like to discuss investments or financial planning, contact us.
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