Paul McAleer: Hi. Welcome to Designing Yourself. My name is Paul McAleer.
Whitney Hess: And this is Whitney Hess.
Paul: Thanks so much for listening, everybody. This week what we wanted to talk about was focus. Focus is - well, I’ve lost track of what I was going to say about focus, Whitney.
Whitney: Focus is a noun and a verb.
Paul: It totally is. Thank you. Yes, it is a noun and a verb. So, I want to talk about it in the sense of a lot of things. I mean, first of all the way I think about it is with regards to work and technology and all that good stuff.
But that gets a little boring to me, so I don’t want to spend too much time on it unless we turn this into a big tech podcast, which we could do. We can start doing some iOS tips and tricks and stuff like that.
Whitney: There aren’t any of those podcasts on the Net, so we would be filling a need.
Paul: There’s a total lack of tech podcasts on the internet, so yes, that’s exactly right. So, let’s talk about it. So, iOS, on the home screen - no.
Whitney: I’ve been having a problem with my iPhone, though. I could get some help.
Paul: That’s true. You have. So, yeah, we’ll put the shout-out at the end. We’ll open up the phone lines and have people call in. So, focusing, I started a new job recently, and one of the things that I do a lot at my work now is I do a lot of writing, which I love. I love the fact that I’m spending a lot of my days writing things. It makes me so happy.
But something I noticed within myself is that I’ll be writing something, I’ll be writing a - I’ll be writing something at work. Go figure. But I’ll be writing a piece of paper or something for somebody, and I’ll get to a point where I start to get really kind of bored or I sense there’s a challenge or something coming up that I have to write, or I’m missing a piece of information or just there’s something that I put in my head as an obstacle.
And then what I will do is I will go over and read Twitter, or I will do something else and just distract myself for a little while. And I’m quick to judge that now when I’m talking about it. It sounds like while I’m being distracted I am not being focused. I am not getting this done.
And these are things, of course, that have deadlines. I respect that. I still have time to work on it. But it’s something that I take myself out of the moment intentionally on, and I kind of read Tweets and make snarky comments on Twitter and then get back to it.
But when it happens, I’m usually OK with it for a moment. But then after that I kind of just look at it. I’m like, wow, what are you doing? Why are you not writing this? Get back to writing it, kind of a get back to work type of thing. And I’m wondering if that is good or bad, because I attach bad to that all the way. And I see that as a little bit very literal interpretation of not being focused.
Whitney: Well, I don’t know that there is such a thing as good or bad. But it’s probably not being focused. But then that leads us down the road of, is focus good?
Paul: Oh, yeah.
Whitney: Why is it that we believe that focusing on one thing is good? And I’m not saying that it isn’t, but it would be an interesting path to go down. But before we do, I think that what you’re describing is completely normal. And we all have this affliction.
So, you pull up a news site and you’re reading an article. When was the last time that you started it and you finished it in a single read? It just seems like never, to me. You see that you have a new Tweet. You get a notification that email came through. Something lights up on your phone. Someone walks over to your desk. You remember that you were supposed to do this other thing. You think, why am I wasting my time doing this? I have to do this. It’s nonstop.
And it’s even in almost the way that things are designed now, that we used to have just Windows in a browser, and we would keep a window at either partial screen or fullscreen. And then they invented tabs, want a quicker way to switch between things. And now that we have that, we switch between things all the time.
And they’re always there. And there’s always that other tab that’s luring you towards it. And it’s like grass is always greener kind of thing. Oh, you should be doing this. You should be doing this. And it is a huge frustration to me because I work for myself, and I don’t have anyone looking over my shoulder, glancing at my screen when they pass by wondering what is it that I’m working on or even telling me that I should stop what I’m doing and go work on something else.
I have no one to tell me to focus, and I don’t have anyone to tell me what to focus on. And so, I struggle with it all the more because I only have the angel and the devil on each shoulder kind of egging me on in these different directions. And it can feel impossible to decide which direction to go in.
Paul: Come on. Just read a few more Tweets. It’s not going to take much time, right?
Whitney: Right or, you shouldn’t be reading the news. You should be working on that piece that you’re writing. And then in the middle of writing it, what’s the definition for that thing? And what was the history behind that? And I don’t really have that information. And then you go down a wiki-hole.
Whitney: Or you spend 15 minutes in the thesaurus searching for the perfect word and it takes you down from one definition to another until you forgot your train of thought and the thing you were writing. And it’s so frustrating. I do it all the time.
Paul: Yeah. I guess part of it is, too, when you’re doing that, because I’m doing that, too, that type of thing. Wikipedia is really notorious for that, really, really, really. And when I’m doing that, though, I’m still trying to keep in mind what the goal is, right?
Because, when I’m writing a document or I’m writing a blog post or a Tweet, for goodness sake, there’s an end goal that I have in mind. Now, with the documents I’ve been working on at work it isn’t necessarily that I’m finishing the whole thing at the end of the day. I’m breaking it up into chunks that I feel are manageable over time. I’m doing mini project management in my head.
But I think I’m doing that with things like blog posts and Tweets as well because there’s a very clear start and finish for me, right? There’s either a time constraint or topic constraint or I just feel it’s good enough and I want to get it out there.
But that type of stuff drives me sometimes. Like the time aspect in particular, that’s thing that can help drive my focus, because before we started the podcast we were talking a little about our daily schedules to some degree, and I admitted that I get up really damn early every day and I love it and I’m super-proud of it.
But one of the things it also does is it gives me a very definite amount of time to work on stuff. Like, I have an hour in the morning when I can work on things. And I have an hour and that’s it. And then my son is awake and my wife is awake and it’s time to get the family going. And that’s obviously the more important stuff.
So, I do have a little time to myself, and I’ll keep that constraint in mind when I’m doing things like writing a blog post or Tweeting or shopping for pants, which I do in the mornings now because shopping for pants online is something I do at the age of 35.
My gosh. I admitted that in a podcast. But those are some of the things I do. And when I’m shopping there’s definitely no real focus there. That’s kind of just meandering around the Web. And then somehow I’m looking at the episode guide for Lost and recounting what happened in season 3.
But when I want to write something it’s like, oh man. I’m on fire. I’ve got an hour to finish this thing. And I’m going to finish it. Or I’m just going to write a draft and then publish it later. But for me time really drives this stuff.
But I also - I’m comfortable with deadlines, but I also am not a person who will go right up against the deadline always. I don’t really like that at all.
Whitney: I am that way completely. I work very well under pressure. And I think it was a habit that I developed in high school, and it’s been with me ever since. But I completely agree that constraints create a demand for focus in a way that open-endedness just doesn’t.
And I’ve been realizing that recently because I have a purposeful lull in August from client work. I try to keep things at a minimum so that I can focus on personal projects. There we go, that word, “focus.” And I have less in my calendar.
And that’s rare for me. My calendar is usually booked solid weeks in advance with prospective client calls and client check-in meetings and mentoring calls and you name it, user research, what have you. My calendar is usually pretty full.
But recently it’s been pretty empty. And so I wake up in the morning and I need to decide how I’m going to spend my time. And it is an unlimited number of possibilities. So, I do a little of this and I do a little of that and I do a little of this. And then before I know it the day has passed. And I look up, and I wonder, what was it that I did today?
And I realize that I’m not getting as much done when I have more time to get things done. And it seems strange, right? It seems incredibly strange. But in the next couple of weeks I’m going to have much more going on. Things are starting to ramp up for me in a few areas. And already in prep for that, the last couple of days I feel as though I’ve gotten so much done.
I’ve made so much progress in many different areas. I’ve got a bunch of things off my to-do list. I’ve had a bunch of calls scheduled. And suddenly I’m super-productive again just almost with the awareness that my time is going to be spoken for much more so in a few weeks. I’m now using my time better, and I’m finally allowing myself to focus on what really matters and I’m achieving my goals.
But when I have all the time in the world, it seems very challenging to do that, to find that focus.
Paul: Yeah, that’s thing I can relate to, too. And I noticed this, too. I think we’ve both been talking about kind of the work and personal projects angle of this. But you mentioned something that’s kind of important there is that you said you get to focus on the things that are most important.
And those are not necessarily work things and personal projects, right? I mean, that’s part of what we’ve talked about before and something that I think we both agree on. But when I start thinking about focus I really go to work stuff right away. That’s where my mind goes, that and technology.
Whitney: I know, and it seems as though that’s how we’ve been conditioned, that when we talk about focus we think about work. Maybe we were taught that in school we need to focus on our own test. We need to focus on our work. We need to focus on the teacher. We need to focus at the board, whatever it was that we were being told to focus on.
So, I often think that when that word is used that’s what it conjures. But I sense that you’re hinting at focusing on ourselves, taking care of ourselves and allowing ourselves the time that we need to do certain things that are of utmost importance.
And one of the things that comes to mind for me is in yoga. So, I love yoga. It’s been something that I’ve done for years. And I’ve gotten into it in spurts, so I’ve done it really intensely for a period of a couple of months and then things change. I travel or I get a new client gig or I have a personal relationship that’s troubling me and suddenly my focus is diverted and I stop going to classes.
But now I’m in a place where I’ve been determined to integrate yoga in my life in a meaningful way and to not let it go. And so I’ve been very focused on going regularly. And when I’m there, I give it my total focus. I’m not thinking about the client that I have to respond to or the check that I haven’t received yet or the argument that I had with my boyfriend before I walked out the door or any of that. That doesn’t exist.
And I feel as though the yoga instructors often guide you towards that focus. Now, of course, we’re getting back to our favorite topic - presence.
Whitney: It has a lot to do with being there in the moment. But that focus is like a hyper-presence, because it isn’t just be here now. It’s also draw your attention to your calf. Draw your attention to your hip. Draw your attention to your heart center. Draw your attention to your mind.
And a lot of times when yoga instructors are directing you to breathe in a certain way - this happened the other day. Breathe in through your front body, filling all the way down to below your navel. Breathe out letting the air cascade over your back body and exiting at the top of your head.
Now, I’m not sure because I’m no biologist whether it’s physically possible to actually mentally move your inhale and exhale in that way. But when you are that level of focused on what you’re doing, you can almost feel the sensation that that’s actually happening.
And so, while we were in some pose that we were in and I was focused so intently on that motion that was described, it really felt like there was this circular air that was going through my body, and I felt the physical, emotional, spiritual benefits of that.
But it required a prescription of how to think about that that was so insanely focused, and I think that that’s beyond just the presence of be in the moment, don’t think about the past, don’t think about the future.
Paul: Yeah, I agree with you. And yoga is an awesome example, because I was thinking about it as well. And one of the things that I’m wondering now about focus as you're talking about it is how much of it is really just not - well, how much of it is a mind thing only. Like, is focus only about the mind, or is it about all of us, like all of our parts?
Paul: Exactly, right? Because even with yoga, I’m thinking about how you have to focus consciously on what you’re doing and how you’re breathing and how you’re positioned and kind of what’s going on, which touches a little on some stuff we’ve talked about before.
But then beyond that, is it - can you focus - like, if you’re focusing your body, how does that work? Is that just your mind kind of telling your body what to do or helping focus it or what?
Whitney: Well, one thing that came to mind immediately for me was that there are times when - and I’m sure he’s going to hate that I’m saying this publicly on a podcast. But there are times that when I’m having a serious conversation with my boyfriend, Fredrick, and we’ll be sitting on the couch, and I’ll be cross-legged and sitting up and facing him, and he’ll be kind of sprawled out with his back on his couch but maybe his legs up on the coffee table.
And he’ll be very focused on our conversation. His attention isn’t diverted and he’s taking what I’m saying seriously, and cognitively he’s there. But his body is facing another direction. And I’m really big on body language. It’s something that is just - I’m extremely conscious of. And as experienced designers and people who conduct user research, I’ve honed my observation skills and I’ve become hyper-aware of people’s body positioning and I take that as cues for things that are going on for them that they aren’t directly saying.
And so I’m always like, face me, face me, and I nag them about it because I feel like there’s something that isn’t totally focused on me. And it’s not - because the conversation is there, so mentally I think he’s completely there. But there’s some other element, and I don’t know if I can describe it as emotion. But maybe it’s somatic, something of the body that feels as though it’s not in focus of what we’re discussing.
And, I’m not quite sure if that’s in my own mind and it’s something that I’m just imagining or if it’s real, if there really is, as you say, more than just the mind when it comes to focusing on things.
Paul: Right, because I’m thinking about just the context of a conversation. When you’re talking with someone, or anyone is talking with someone, we make eye contact if we can, if we’re capable of doing that, because that is our way of showing attention and respect and everything else that goes with it.
But it’s also a matter of focus because then you are potentially positioned where you can see that person. You can communicate with that person. And you’re kind of - eye contact is something we kind of take for granted within the context of a conversation.
But that’s how you’re showing you’re focused and paying attention as much as you can. But then I’m thinking about, well, if you have a conversation, much like you were giving an example on, where you’re not facing each other, is that a sign where there’s no focus? Or is it - sometimes it may be a matter of physical comfort or discomfort as well, which has nothing to do with the focus.
But it could be interpreted that way. It could be interpreted as not being focused on what's happening in the conversation fully with the body there as well. So I’m wondering if it is a body thing, too.
Whitney: Well, this is a great example. Here we are in conversation but we’re not in the same place. We can’t see each other. For those of you listening, Paul and I don’t have any video on. This is totally in audio. And I can’t see what you’re doing. And I have really no context for your environment at all.
I don’t know if you’re writing something down that piqued your interest that I just said. I don’t know if you’re writing something down to remind yourself of what you want to say next and you don’t know the same about me.
We record this on our own computers. So there are a million things or an unlimited number of things on each of our computers to distract us while we’re doing this podcast. I can’t close the lid of my MacBook because I’m recording. And I’m sitting in my home and I have my office things around me and my boyfriend’s downstairs and watching TV and I hear a cricket outside or something hits the roof or the bag falls down or ice moves in the glass. It’s just everywhere. There are things that can distract me from everywhere.
Or it could just be distracted in my own thought. And even though we are so in sync verbally, and cognitively is really the best way that I can describe it, that we’re thinking about what the other person is saying and we’re listening to them. Is there some element of each of us that isn’t focused on what we’re doing because we aren’t in the same space and we don’t have that physical communication as well?
Paul: Right. That’s true. Like, I just ordered a bunch of pants online. So, you know -
Whitney: Wow. You’re quick.
Paul: Hey. I know what I want. I’m quick about it. But in all seriousness, right now I’m sitting at my desk and I’m kind of looking at a notebook. But I’m not writing anything on it. I’m not actively reading it. I’m just looking at it and kind of gazing at it, I suppose. But that’s it.
And I could describe the room for me, but then it almost sounds like we’re doing a text adventure type of thing. But I agree with you on that. In this case, the focus is more about - it’s a projection and pretending that there’s a physical component to the conversation where we are sharing the conversation physically, but we are totally not, not in the same space anyway.
I think that’s the qualifier, because we still are. I mean, we’re both physically here, in a sense. But we’ve created - oh boy. We’ve created a virtual space where we are both physically existing and not existing at the same time.
We’ve created that just by having the conversation at all. So it’s like we’re in the same physical space, but we’re totally not. So there’s the reality of being there and not being there, and that draws fully and beautifully into technology and how it can distract us away from stuff, because there’s the whole notion of waiting in a line anymore.
I mean, you can - if you have a smartphone or even a feature phone you can just whip out your phone and take yourself away from that. You don’t have to participate in that waiting in the line anymore. You just don’t. you have that option.
And ultimately it’s a big distraction, and sometimes there’s a time for that and sometimes there’s not. I’m thinking about driving. You can’t really distract yourself while you’re doing that. You need to stay focused.
Whitney: But plenty of people do. I’ve seen those screens, like DVD players or whatever they are, in the front seat, not behind the driver’s seat but actually hanging off the dash.
Paul: Yeah. I don’t understand that. And I don’t understand how people can do that. I just don’t.
Whitney: They can’t, is the truth. They just can’t.
Paul: So, what do you think’s going on in those cases? Not just that. That’s almost a shooting fish in the barrel example maybe. But you think about it in lines and waiting in line. What's happening where we feel that we’re just going to take ourselves out of that moment altogether and focus on something else? Like, I don’t want to focus on this.
Whitney: Discomfort. It’s discomfort, right? I mean, who likes waiting on a line? Who’s like, I am so excited to stand here in anticipation of that task that I really just need to get done? I am so excited to watch all these other people in front of me get their tasks accomplished before I do?
I would have totally allotted for this half an hour of standing here doing absolutely nothing. We’re just uncomfortable. And so we distract ourselves and we take ourselves out of the present moment. We pull out our phone and we then try to focus on something else.
And I don’t want to blame technology, honestly, because I think it isn’t technology’s fault. It was the magazine next to the cash register before that, and it was the daily newspaper before that, and it was always something else. I’m sure it was always something.
And the lines are longer because everyone else is distracted anyway. So, we’d all be getting things done faster and we wouldn’t feel as uncomfortable if we were all focusing on just one thing. But it’s not really the technology. The technology is the enabler, but I don’t think it’s the cause.
And one thing that comes to mind immediately is that I have a very close friend who I’ve known almost my whole life who I cherish. And we don’t get a lot of time together. And when we do we usually have a meal. And so, we’ll sit down to a dinner, and it will be usually at a wonderful restaurant that’s very exciting to be at with a great menu.
And at some point during the meal when we are deep in conversation, catching up on a lot of really important things that have gone on in each of our lives, he will suddenly be looking down towards his lap. And he’s not being overt about it, but it’s enough for me to notice, and I’m a pretty observant person.
And his phone will have buzzed, and he didn’t want to interrupt what I was saying because for whatever reason he thought that that would be inappropriate. But he also can’t possibly wait to check what's happening on his phone.
And so he’ll, on the sly, take his phone out of his pocket. Or maybe he had it under his leg. And he’ll put it on his lap. And he’ll be glancing down almost under the table to look at whatever just buzzed. And I’m all the more irritated by that than I would be if he said, hey, can I interrupt you for a sec? I just got something and I need to check it.
And it’s because he’s splitting his attention. He isn’t focusing on what I’m saying. And for whomever he’s replying to, he’s not really focusing on them either because he’s still engaging me in conversation. He’s still listening to what I’m saying and responding to what I’m saying.
So, whatever he’s replying to, he’s doing it with less attention and focus as well. So, both of the interactions are diminished. And, like I said, I don’t think that technology has caused this. I mean, yes, some designer somewhere said we’re going to put a bell on this thing every time something happens on it. And maybe that was a really bad design idea.
And I’ve turned all those things off on mine because it does not own me. I’m going to pick it up when I’m able to pick it up. And then I’ll very capably be able to see all the things that have occurred that need my attention when I turn my phone back on.
But he has a vibrator, because I’ve never heard it so he must have it on vibrate or the light must come on or something and he’s aware. And he runs a business just like me. And so I understand that some things take precedent. And it doesn’t offend me that there might be something going on right now that’s more important for him.
But it’s that he doesn’t give it his whole focus and at the same time is diminishing his focus on me that really bugs me. But I know that I must do the same thing to people.
Paul: I think everybody does it. And you’re right, the technology is the enabler. And it’s been going on for a long time. And I think the question that is really can we really multi-task as people? Is that something we’re really truly able to do or we just kid ourselves with this?
Because you mentioned the example of somebody checking - him checking his phone during dinner. And you mentioned something really great that I hadn’t thought of, because there’s the assumption, of course, that - and this is - I forget if this is hypothetical or not but I’ll pretend it is just to be polite.
But there’s the sense that, yes, he’s no longer paying attention to you because he’s taken himself out of that conversation. But the whole idea that he’s not really paying firm attention or close attention to the conversation that's happening on the phone either because he’s not physically there, mentally there, what have you, that angle I forget about, honestly, because to me it’s - I forget about it because of the technology. To me, that kind of gets in the way.
Like, it would be very different if there was a person coming up to the table every 30 seconds saying, excuse me, I want to continue our conversation. And it’s, OK, here you go. See you later, and then coming back and back and back. Like, if the technology was just the people and not a proxy, it would be a very different experience, you know?
Like, it would be very strange to have someone coming up to your table or your desk or wherever every few seconds saying, oh hey, you have a new message. Then you’d say, OK, read me the message. OK, great. Now, what were you saying? It would just be really awkward really quickly if there were humans involved in every facet of the interaction.
Like, I don’t know that we would stand for that. I would hope not. It’s just kind of ridiculous, right? And yet with the technology, with that angle or a book or a magazine, we just kind of carry on our way and kind of let it happen.
And it’s a very different way of being. It pulls into interruptions and getting distracted any time and allowing yourself to be distracted. I guess another question is, with regards to looking at a phone or reading something, for goodness sake, while you’re waiting in line, why do we do that? Why do we do that?
Yes, maybe it’s not interesting to us. Maybe it’s boring. But why do we want to engage in something else at that moment?
Whitney: For me it comes from the pressure of feeling like I don’t do enough. So, there’s all of these devices that are attempting to allow me to do a lot more than I was able to do before they existed. And it creates this new normal where now I am a superwoman and I’m able to do so much more than I ever was before.
And so I start doing more than I was ever capable of before. And then other people start to get used to me doing a lot more. And then the expectation is that I can do more. And so then I find myself in a scenario where my physical body needs to be doing something but my mind doesn’t need to be engaged, at least not for now.
And so, let me engage my mind in something else because I have one more thing to get done. I’m standing here. I’m wasting time. And it can be standing on a line. It can be sitting in a meeting at work that you didn’t call, that you don’t feel like you’re getting any value out of. And it could be sitting across the table from a friend that you think this is a waste of my time. I have things that are more important, more pressing that I need to get to.
And I think that that’s a symptom of how over-scheduled and overwrought we all are. And we feel as though what we achieve in a day is never enough. It’s never, ever enough. We always could have done more. We always could have used our time more wisely.
And we live in this world now that is so obsessed with productivity. And I feel bad saying it because I have some good friends whose businesses are really all designed towards helping make people more productive. It’s like hard for me to even say it because it’s a challenging thing for me, because it’s like a drug.
And I’ve always been wild for productivity tips. And I remember when I got my first iPhone. I immediately went to the App Store, and I was searching for productivity apps and I want to try every new to-do list, and I want to try every timer and I want to try everything that has to do with productivity to make the best use of my time.
And the people who devote their businesses to this are not bad people, and they do help a lot of people find more focus. But there is this assumption that doing more is better, that getting more done in the same 24 hours is better. And so we find people not sleeping eight hours a day, not getting the sleep that they need, not getting the food that they need.
It’s fast-fast-fast, how much can I check off my list today? And I don’t feel as though there’s that depth and that attention to what you’re actually trying to do, that everything now has become this very superficial interaction. And we’re doing it by cutting as many corners as possible, and we’re doing it as quickly as possible with as little involvement of ourselves as possible.
And I don’t get that. If you’re not into it, don’t do it. Just don’t go. If you’re not thrilled about the idea of sitting across from that person for an hour and a half over dinner to the extent that you need to pull out your phone to look at what is happening elsewhere in the world, then don’t go to that dinner.
You know what the alternative is? That you could spend the whole hour and a half looking at what else is going on in the world if it’s that important to you. And there’s nothing wrong with that. So, it’s something that is upsetting to me, this idea that we have to do more-more-more-more, but the quality of what we do doesn’t seem to matter.
Paul: Yeah. It’s about doing more crappier stuff, right?
Paul: And one of the things that we know, I think, as design folks, is that a big part of design is saying no and saying we’re not going to do this and I’m not going to do that or anything like that.
And it’s easier maybe to think about that in the context of work because you might not be able to do something or you might not have the skills or the interest or the knowledge, maybe, more precisely, to do something. And you might say no. And there may be people who come to you and you have to say yes to them and you have to do it.
But when it comes to yourself, it’s kind of a different thing because I think you’re kind of hitting on a key point here is that I’m wondering if in part maybe because of technology - I don’t want that to be the scapegoat of the hour, but it doesn’t allow us to say no as easily. It allows us to say yes really easily.
Like, you get a text message. It’s damn easy to reply. It takes almost no effort. It’s super-quick if you want it to be. You can spend a lot of time on it and that’s it. You get an email, you can respond to it. You can take your time with email. It’s a little less instantaneous, maybe. But saying no is ever different there, and kind of opting out in a way.
And it just seems like everything’s been defaulted to get a response all the time always. You think about touching back to work-life balance and how even you were mentioning you’ve kind of being a superwoman and that’s kind of where you’re at with it or that’s how you’re perceived or both.
And I would imagine part of that is just because you might seem to be available all the time. And I don’t know if that’s a matter of personality or technology or both. Maybe it is. But I know I’m a little more inclined to respond to things on Twitter when people message me.
And it might be a time when I am easily distracted or it might be a time when I’m not, which is the more interesting part. Like, if I cannot be distracted, well then I will not be. I will not allow myself to do that. But if there’s even a little part of me that says, OK, it’s cool, it’s going to take very little time, then I’m focused on that.
But my focus shifts back and forth, and then it’s not just distractions. It’s taking away time. And I could just say no to myself and say, you know what? No. I’m not going to do that now. I’ve got other stuff to do. And if I think of something witty, well, great, I’ll have to try to remember it later. But that’s not most important now. That’s not the thing I need to focus on.
Whitney: Well, there is no focus without no.
Whitney: Because you’re saying yes to one very important thing and you’re saying no to everything else. And of course I’m immediately reminded once again of The Power of a Positive No, which I mentioned a couple of episodes ago, by William Ury. It’s really a negotiation book on how to say no.
But the thing that he reinforces which has been the most helpful thing to me in finding my no, finding how I can say it, is that your no is in service to a greater yes.
Paul: That’s great. I like that.
Whitney: And that yes is for you, for your goals, for your purpose, for whatever it is that you have deemed most important to you. And that’s why you say no. You don’t say no because you’re a heartless bitch. You don’t say no because you have a grudge. You don’t say no because you’re not capable and you’ve hit your max. That’s not why you say no.
You say no because you’ve already said yes to something else and you are going to keep that promise and that commitment to that other thing. And it requires saying no to a lot of other things as a result. And thinking about it that way has opened up a world of possibility for me because in, let’s say, 2008/2009, I was just getting my business started and I was very active on Twitter.
I was live Tweeting all the conferences that I was going to, and I was going to a dozen conferences a year, it felt like, lots of local events in and around New York. I was on my computer all day, pretty much, with Twitter open and reading what people were saying and taking breaks every half an hour from what I was doing and replying to a bunch of things that I saw on my stream, and people would write back to me, and I was very highly engaged.
And I found that pretty quickly my email inbox was filling up, too, mostly of people that I was engaging with on Twitter or who had seen retweets of things that I had said on Twitter. And it was all, can we have a coffee? Can we have a phone chat? I’d love to work with you on this. Can you answer this question that is longer than 140 characters? I have this problem at work. Can you tell me what resources I need? Or whatever.
And it was - so, all of that very rich but also very fast-paced interaction that was happening on Twitter was seeping into this other area that is not fast-paced. And we all know what it feels like to have the inbox piling up. And a lot of it wasn’t just about the time that it would take for me to write the response that I felt was worth sending, but more so the time then that I was going to be adding to my schedule doing the things that had been requested of me, meeting with the person or having that phone call or crafting that answer or doing that research, what have you.
And it was something about - I came to the conclusion after pulling my hair out saying how can I have more time to myself, I feel like I’m so spread thin and I’m not focusing on the things that really mattered to me because I’m constantly playing Whack-a-Mole and have my attention diverted.
I finally came to the realization that because I was on Twitter so much and I seemed so accessible it was like being in the chat room. I was there. I was in the chat room. That’s what I was doing. That is what it appeared was my focus that people felt as though I was available. Because I was so accessible, I was available, that my time was available to them.
And I don’t want to come off in any way as sounding ungrateful that people want to share part of their time with me because I still can't believe it. I’m still in awe of it. And it’s a great honor to be able to engage with people. But at some point you have to say enough is enough. I had a goal today and I haven’t been able to achieve it because now I’m helping everyone else with their goals.
So, it got to a point where I made a conscious decision to engage on Twitter less and to be less accessible and to take longer to respond to emails by virtue of the fact that I had so many. And also, I probably, if I’m honest with myself, may have added even some additional waiting time because I didn’t want to create the appearance of being available. I wanted to create the appearance of being really freaking busy.
And over time it worked. I would say starting last summer the Tweets, they slowed down and the emails slowed down pretty significantly. And I would say that August of last year was probably the first time in my career that I felt like I really had focus and I wasn’t being pulled in a million different directions.
And I decided to take a little retreat and get out of the city. And I went to this wonderful little cabin in New Paltz, New York, which is in Hudson Valley area. And everything seemed pretty quiet. Now, things do quiet down a little bit in the summer, perhaps. But I had done that work to give myself distance.
And I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, and I was publishing blog posts every day. And several people, some of whom are good friends and some of whom I’ve never met, got in touch saying, whoa. You are on a roll. The things that you have been writing about lately have so much clarity, so much vision. There’s such a great synthesis. Your tone has been spot-on. Your style seems refined. You haven’t written like this before.
And that was after four and a half years and 500-some posts. And that was a big wake-up call.
Paul: Wow, 500 posts? Holy crap. Wow.
Whitney: I’m at 730 or something now.
Paul: Wow. Wow. My goodness.
Whitney: I know. It’s disgusting.
Paul: No. No, no, no. No. I don’t see that as disgusting at all. I’m just kind of surprised because to me that - wow, that just sounds like such a slow roll. And as part of this, too, we’re still getting to know each other. But wow. Wow, I’m just kind of stunned. Like, now it makes me just want to read through the archives at some point and kind of go through the catacombs and see what’s in it.
Whitney: You know, I have - that’s the thing about the blog format. It’s all chronological. I still haven’t cracked the nut on how to navigate readers back to the really old stuff. And most of my content is evergreen. It’s not topical. It’s not based on what's happening in the news. It’s not based on trends. So I think a lot of it is still relevant, and I wish some of it would get out there. But anyway, that’s a topic for another discussion.
Paul: No, but I agree, and I have that same problem so we really should talk about that. I think it’s very interesting. But you’re right in that a lot of it is about saying no and what you’re saying yes to.
And I think it’s really interesting to think about all the things that you’re saying yes to when you’re engaged in things and when you’re not engaged in things as well, just really thinking about in the context of - well, I lost my train of thought. I lost my focus. It’s terrible. I totally lost my focus. That’s it.
Whitney: It happens.
Paul: It happens.
Whitney: You know why? Because we are -
Paul: I was distracted.
Whitney: We’re natural human beings and we get distracted by things all the time. As you’re saying that and you’re like, oh, I lost my train of thought, I have a visual picture which is this thing that my college psych professor drew on the board of the stimulus, working memory, short-term memory and long-term memory. And it’s this funnel.
And it’s this enormous opening that we have of stimuli. It’s happening all the time. Even if we’re laying still, like we say, watching paint dry, there’s still all these cues coming from all these places and we need to process that. And only a smidgen of what is happening around us are we ever aware of, does it reach our consciousness.
And then there are things that we’re actively trying to remember and keep in our consciousness and stay present with that direct our actions in that moment. And then only such a small subset of that that we can even commit to a memory that lasts throughout the day, and then even so much smaller than that that we can commit to memory that we’ll be able to access a week from now.
Like, remember what you had for lunch. I have no idea. Did you remember what you were going to say?
Paul: No, but I remember something else, so that’s OK.
Whitney: Go for it.
Paul: So, I was thinking about yoga as well and thinking about that and also meditation. So, one thing that I took away from my yoga classes that I took a few months back was how very hard the corpse pose is. My teacher at the time said corpse pose is the hardest pose. She said I’m not even kidding. This is the hardest pose. Do you know corpse pose?
Whitney: I don’t know the names. My teachers don’t tend to use the name a lot. Tell me.
Paul: OK. Well, corpse pose is basically where you are lying completely still on the ground. And I believe your palms are up. And you just have that laying there type of pose. You’re just laying on your mat and that is it.
Whitney: Oh, like in Shavasana?
Paul: I don’t know. I’m going to have to take your word for it.
Whitney: Like, at the end?
Paul: Yes. It’s at the end. Yes, exactly, yes. So we would end with that before chanting a little bit. But that was the hardest pose. And part of it relate to meditation for me because in that moment you are there and you’re trying to - well, I was trying to focus on just being there and still.
And it’s so hard because it is such a neutral body pose for me that it was really easy for me to let my mind wander and bring in other things, which is totally like meditation. And we’ve touched on that before. It’s just the monkey mind. You start recalling things that are going to happen or did happen or what have you. And it just kind of goes in and out of your mind.
And the importance there is to stay focused on what you’re doing and that you are there right now in that moment doing that thing, which in the case of corpse pose is basically laying still. But if you focus on that, then in my experience when I did put more of my attention on it, again, kind of the mind leading the body thing, well, I got a lot more out of it, and I found it to be a very positive pose for me, just having that moment and having that time with myself and just having nothing else distracting me as much as possible. I mean, that was really rewarding for me.
So, if you take that type of mentality and apply it to something else, how does that work? Is it basically letting the Tweets go in and out and not even considering them and not being - noticing that they’re there, maybe, maybe hearing the phone buzz in your pocket, but not necessarily following up on that, just acknowledging, yeah, it happened, OK. And now I’m back to doing my other thing that I’m working on.
Or if somebody comes up to your desk and asks you something, OK, great. Or, no, I can’t handle right now, and just being honest with them about it, just letting it pass, just letting it flow in and out. I mean, that’s the thing that seems to be - that I feel can be a connection between meditation and yoga and everything else, because it’s all the same thing to me.
It’s, these are the things that are flowing in and out of our lives and we’re choosing to say yes to some things at certain times because that’s how we roll. But we also are saying no to a whole bunch of other things, too. Or we’re just not even saying no. We’re just acknowledging their presence and then moving on. And that’s it. We’re staying focused in that moment.
Whitney: Well, I find that very challenging, quite honestly, because I feel as though there is so much in the world that is so amazing to me and that I want to soak up. And it often feels like it’s all coming at me at the same time. And so I don’t know where to direct my focus. I might be really engaged in something that I’m doing right now, but then another opportunity arises and I can’t help but go there because maybe I won’t get another chance to do it again.
But it’s so amazing and I need to find out what’s there and I need to explore that opportunity, and then I’m doing that. And then, but I really missed - I was longing for this thing that I was doing before and I’m back to that.
And I go through this with a lot of projects that I’m working on. And it happens with interests that I have, like hobbies. And I do this with books, too. So right now I have probably four or five books that I’m in the middle of and I’m not finishing any of them because I find myself not able to focus on one book.
When that moment comes where I’m like, you know, it’s time for a bit of reading and I sit down and I think what do I want to read now, I can’t decide. And so I’ll go to one and I’ll read a few pages and I’ll say, oh, this is interesting. I could get into this. Let me see about that other one. And I go to that other one and I read a few pages. This is really interesting. I could get into this. But what about that third one?
And it just goes on like that until in the end I’ve read three pages in four books when I could have read 12 pages in one and had probably such a deeper, more meaningful experience with that one thing.
I know that intellectually, but yet I feel so drawn to so many things. And I’m struggling with that. And I’ve kind of come to a realization recently that a lot of the things that I’m interested in are actually all the same thing. They’re very related. And it doesn’t seem that way on the surface, but as I get deeper into each I’m coming to see that they are all very similar.
So I’m taking it a little easy on myself in that I feel like it’s going somewhere. I’m going to be able to weave these threads together and make it cohesive and eventually say this all served the same greater purpose. But I still know that it’s taking me much longer to get there and longer to articulate what that purpose is, why it’s so important and to share that with others because I haven’t given myself the time to focus on any one thing.
Paul: But maybe that’s the way you focus. Maybe the way you focus is by diversifying your interests and what you’re reading and kind of what you’re doing and what you’re interested in, you know? Maybe that’s the way you do focus.
Whitney: I’ve heard that one. I’ve certainly heard that one.
Paul: You sound like you totally don’t buy it, though.
Whitney: I’m not sure if I buy it. I think I’m too hard on myself to buy that. But no, I have been told that. I’ve been told that I’m far more engaged, invigorated and determined to achieve things when I have a variety of things going on. Variety is the spice of life.
I’ve been told that that’s the way that I operate. But when I’m doing it, I still feel a tremendous amount of guilt that I’m not focusing on something else. And I feel as though I’m not fully there. And that’s why I say that it was really the very first time in my career, about a year ago, that I felt there.
There was nothing else on my calendar that I was supposed to be doing. There was no one that I was supposed to be meeting with. There was no one that I was wanting to be around. And I was able to kind of go on this retreat on my own and spend a lot of time bathing in this subject matter that means so much to me.
And I didn’t find myself checking Twitter, and I didn’t find myself going and getting a snack from the kitchen. And I didn’t find myself saying, oh, just one episode of SVU. And at the end of the day I felt great. I didn’t feel the need to work through dinner. I didn’t feel the need to go back to the computer at 8pm because I was happy with how I spent my day.
And then my boyfriend and I would chat on the phone, and I felt very accomplished. And I was able to do that for about two and a half weeks. And it was a really, really special time. And I feel that that prompted a lot of what I’ve done over the last year, giving up our places in New York, shifting the way that I run my business, moving to the Keys.
All the stuff that we’ve done, which has been pretty drastic, I think was, in many ways, initiated in an effort to find more focus.
Paul: That makes sense to me. You know, one of the things I was going to say, too, is did you find during that time it was - you said with the days where you did something, where you accomplished something or were able to focus on something, you felt good at the end of the day.
And I know that feeling, too, because for me it’s when I finish something I set out to start. If I do it in whatever time period I allot myself, which may be a work day or may be an hour, as we talked about earlier, I feel really good at the end of it. I’m like, yeah, I kicked ass, got it done.
So, I’m wondering, for you, is it a matter of that you focused on it? Was it the journey or the destination, Whitney? Was it the fact that you spent time working on that thing when you thought and planned to work on that thing? Or was it that you finished? Or was it that time ran out? Or kind of where was the good stuff coming in for you on that?
It was the doing it. It was the state of flow, the presence, obviously. I mean, I really feel as though the things that we set out to achieve as our goals, not just the tasks for the day, but truly what is it that you’re trying to do? Where are you going with all of this?
I think that for most of us, it’s because when we are working towards that goal we feel that we are totally present and totally in a state of flow and we have that level of fulfillment in what we’re doing. For those of you who create a bunch of goals that require doing things that you don’t enjoy, you may want to reevaluate your goals.
So, it’s the journey 100% for me. I don’t think of it that way before I start. I think, God, I haven’t written another blog post. I haven’t met that client. I haven’t called that friend. I haven’t done this. I haven’t done that. I think about it in terms of things accomplished.
But I know that when I make that conscious decision to say no to everything else and to say yes to that one thing that’s really drawing me in and to give it my full attention that when I’m with it, not afterwards that I’ve achieved it, but when I’m with it is when I’m truly happy.
Whitney: What about you? What is it about focus that’s beneficial for you?
Paul: For me right now it is still the end. It is still that I did it and I accomplished it. I have been trying and practicing at being more present in general, but definitely more present while I’m doing the thing I’m doing, thinking about writing, for instance, and how much I enjoy that.
And the joy I get out of it isn’t all around the finishing. That’s not true. I think that’s where I - if I look back at it and say, wow, I finished that thing, that makes me feel really good. But while I’m writing I really enjoy writing. I enjoy being able to express myself that way. And I love that I can. And I love that I’m good at it.
And sometimes those things flow out of me really naturally. Sometimes they don’t. But it’s the act of getting those thoughts and ideas and words out of my head and onto paper, virtual or not, that I really enjoy. And that’s where I can really do well, I think, is when I’m focused on the task at hand, which is - when it’s writing it’s just making sure I’m clear and funny and getting all these things across.
And it’s also trying not to diminish that afterwards, too. The fact that I checked it off my list, great. I don’t want that to be the thing that I always remember. I mean, I will. But I also want to recall how it was in that moment. And it’ll never happen again, sure. But it is the journey. I mean, that’s the fun part.
Having all these things checked off of my to-do list, that doesn’t provide me all that much fun in the end because I have so many to-do lists and so many things I’ve checked off. I’ve lost count because I’ve had so many. There have been hundreds of thousands, probably, right?
And what is that getting me now? Not much, not much at all. I mean, I don’t even know how many I had. And there’s a part of me that really wants to know, but it’s so small. But it’s doing it.
Whitney: But, you know that people make not-to-do lists.
Paul: Oh, that’s awesome. Oh, that’s a great idea.
Whitney: I’ve only done it once when I was making New Year's resolutions. I realized that in order for me to do those 10 things I was going to have to promise to not do 10 other things. So I made - my New Year's resolutions were I’m going to drink more water and walk more or whatever it was. And then I said 10 things I’m not going to do.
And that was helpful. That was very helpful. But it still was like, it ended up being 20 resolutions. But somebody was mentioning it recently, and I’ve heard a few people talk about it, making a not-to-do list. So, every day you say these are my tasks, and at the same time you say and these are the things that I’m not doing today.
Paul: Wow. I love that idea.
Whitney: And if you don’t do it, you get the same satisfaction of checking it off the list, because we all love to check that thing.
Paul: Yes we do.
Whitney: Who doesn’t love to check that thing? I think for some of my tasks I do it just so I can check it, because the checking of it is so gratifying.
Paul: Yeah, I agree. It is very satisfying. I don’t know why, but it totally is.
Whitney: But I just want to encourage you to write whenever you get the urge and to enjoy that process because you’re a great writer and I love reading what you write.
Paul: Well, thank you. That means a lot. Thank you very much. I do love writing. That is all. I love it. And I can absolutely say the same. Your writing is fantastic and has been very inspirational to me in many ways. So, thank you as well.
Whitney: Thank you.
Paul: Well, now that we’re in gratitude land it feels like we’re probably done talking about focus.
Whitney: I can’t believe it, but we spent an hour on focus. We focused on focus for a whole hour.
Paul: We did. And it was meta, which makes me very happy always. I love meta stuff so much.
Whitney: I know. You're into that.
Paul: Oh my gosh, meta stuff.
Paul: We’ll talk about meta stuff next time, right? So that’s it. That’s it for focus.
Whitney: So did we conclude that focus is good?
Paul: Hmm. No. Focus just is.
Whitney: I like it. Focus just is.
Paul: Thanks. That’s how I roll.
Whitney: I’m going to have to focus on that for a while.
Paul: You totally should. You can meditate on that, too, if you want to. Well, thanks to everyone for listening to the podcast. We are very thankful that you do, and we hope you get a lot out of it, too. We enjoy these conversations, and I know that each of us gets a lot of out of it. It’s a very enlightening experience for us and we hospital it is for you, too.
So thanks for listening. And also, the usual things. When you’re looking to distract yourself, you can visit the website for the podcast at designingyourself.net. .Nets rule. You can follow the podcast itself on Twitter at designingyou, Y-O-U. You can follow me on Twitter at PaulMcAleer where I will talk about all the pants I’ve purchased lately.
Whitney: I’m obviously at WhitneyHess. And we are really eager to hear your thoughts on the last five episodes. If you have any feedback for us on our format, on the type of conversations that we’re having, on the quality of the production and especially on topics that we should be covering that you feel are essential to the process of designing yourself, we would love to hear them.
So please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us either at designingyou, PaulMcAleer or WhitneyHess on Twitter. Or of course you could leave a comment on our entries on designingyourself.net.
Paul: All right. That sounds good. Please get in touch and keep listening. Thank you so much.
Whitney: Thank you. ‘Til next time.
Paul: Thanks for listening.