In preparing for a recent overnight visit from long-time friends, I was reminded of the French phrase mise en place—establishing intent and work plan by putting the food items and equipment in place in the kitchen prior to cooking. Since my brigade de cuisine is mainly me, I had to work ahead of their arrival and line up tools and ingredients to make the final preparations for dinner go fast, look easy, and still have time to socialize. My husband and I succeeded. The four of us enjoyed our time together, our friends loved the food, and the leftovers became our “meal of the week,” i.e., we kept eating until it was all gone!
This experience made me think of mise en place in regard to working online. How do we ensure that we have the right readiness–whether it is mindset, clarity of purpose, space, and equipment to accomplish the things most important to us?
When the mind is ready, the opportunity to learn appears.
Leo Babauta came to my rescue. His Focus: Simplicity in the Age of Distraction ebook, free and available here, beautifully captures the challenges of our current time:
“…we have distractions coming from every direction. In front of us is the computer, with email notifications and other notifications of all kinds. Then there’s the addicting lure of the browser, which contains not only an endless amount of reading material that can be a black hole into which we never escape, but unlimited opportunities for shopping, for chatting with other people, for gossip and news and lurid photos and so much more. All the while, several new emails have come in, waiting for a quick response. Several programs are open at once, each of them with tasks to complete. Several people would like to chat, dividing our attention even further. “
What are we to do?
The answer is obvious, is it not? REMOVE THE DISTRACTIONS! How? The first is clearing off our desk, the wall, and floor in our physical work space. Babauta, a zen practitioner, wishes for us to direct our mental energy, and not get lost in the siren call of 1,000,001 other things floating on our desk or in our mind, workplace, and internet. Naturally perhaps, the second step, which may be much harder for many of us, is to turn off email AND notifications from Facebook, Twitter, IM, Instagram, ScoopIt, Google+, mobile phone, etc. and put them in airplane only mode for most of our work day. The rationale–well justified–for taking these two HUGE yet doable steps is explained in the ebook.
Babauta also recommends refocusing rituals when we start our work and after we take breaks every hour for deliberate distractions to relax, reflect, walk around, or stimulate different senses so that when we come back to our task, we are better able to re-engage wholeheartedly.
How do we know what our focus should be?
Babauta simplifies our actions into three steps:
Step 1: Find Something Amazing to work on
Step 2: Clear away everything else
Step 3: Focus on that Something Amazing
He recommends that we should act because of passion. And when we find ourselves going uphill, change course. He acknowledges that when we dread, procrastinate, or hate what we are doing, we need to stop and ask ourselves why. Babauta asserts there must be
a reason that we delay or switch to other activities, such as the social media distractions we complain about otherwise, and not pursue the most important tasks before us.
“…stop yourself when you find yourself struggling, and just pause. Be present, sensing your breath, and then everything around you. See the situation with some objectivity, instead of fleeing from it blindly. Carefully consider your options — all of them. And then respond to the situation mindfully and with the appropriate response — not an overreaction.”
Finally, Babauta’s emphasis on single-tasking—working on creation tasks sequentially—explained why jumping back and forth between tasks slows me down when I leave one line of thought to develop another and then try to reconnect with my original focus. An article in McKinsey Quarterly, January 2011 by Derek Dean and Caroline Webb further backs single-tasking saying “The root of the problem is that our brain is best designed to focus on one task at a time. When we switch between tasks, especially complex ones, we become startlingly less efficient.”
Babauta’s ebook and the McKinsey article offer a terrific ROI–recommendations grounded in practice and research for mise en place—to organize your most important work to get it done on your schedule. I’m trying to follow their recommendations. What about you? What steps do you take to ready yourself for serious work? How do you find your focus? How do you maintain it in this age of distraction?