Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Micro Focus Part 2
In my last article I discussed the inability for people to focus for more than a few minutes on any give task. The article also focuses on the emotional attachment that we affix to social media and our online persona. I am going to delve a little more into why we are only able to concentrate in micro burst, the psychological benefits we receive from being a part of the crowd and ways to be productive in the world that demands our constant attention.
Is it vanity or insanity that encourages us to open seemingly unlimited channels of access to our daily lives? In an effort to get more done we have actually created an environment which is the antithesis of productivity. Why have we suddenly felt the need to be connected on so many levels? Each of these levels includes a specific value of importance, whether it be email, IM’s, Skype, Twitter, Facebook, cell phone, phone or physical intrusions – we place a certain value or level of importance on each.
Why do we allow these interruptions? How can we possibly be productive in an environment where we cannot focus on our task at hand because we are worried about delivering a witty remark on twitter – or responding to an instant message. Why do we do this? It’s simple; it is basic human nature to belong, to congregate, to communicate.
The first thing that people do in a conversation is they try to find something in common. It’s critical. In fact, individuals will begin a conversation with probing questions ‘many times subconsciously’ until they hit upon something that they have in common with the other person. Then this ‘similarity’ will be the catalyst that will lead into further conversation and acceptance. We tend to like people that share similar interests so it is paramount that we discover this in others in order to converse.
The same applies to social media. Look at the groups that have formed online, Facebook is a great example nearly ½ the population of the US has a Facebook account, Twitter is growing faster than facebook with millions of users. People are spending twice as much time online than they are watching TV. The need to congregate and communicate is an incredible driving force of human nature.
We will allow interruption in our lives because we need the interruption. Whether we like it or not, we need significance we need ‘social validation’. We need to feel that our life has value, that we are smart, that we are funny, that we are productive and our lives are interesting - not only interesting but interesting enough for others to want to take time out of their lives to read about what we are doing. We seek validation from others; we seek to prove to ourselves and others that we are interesting, that our lives have meaning.
We also have the need to feel connected. Believe me you are - your connected to cable, your cell phone, the internet, chats, blogs, forums, IM’s, and to various social media groups. What does this do to our productivity, the way we think, the way we interact with others?
For many it adds a new level of stress to their lives that must be addressed and explored. You see not to long ago we used to communicate with maybe 3-5 people every day – but now with Twitter and other micro blogging platforms – we suddenly converse with hundreds of people. We now have the expectation of not only communicating but creating an online persona that is interesting and responsive. Here is where things begin to fall apart.
Many people find themselves feeling needing to twitter to validate their actions. Any task or any action that is deemed to have some importance or value – they feel the need to twitter about it. So suddenly they are torn, they move from being productive – to feeling a responsibility to Twitter. The same thing happens with Facebook, and other micro blogging sites. Not so much with IM’s as there is not the ‘group’ acceptance or expectation.
In many ways, the way we communicate has changed as well as stayed the same. The same psychological needs are there, but the responsibilities that we have placed on ourselves have changed. We are now challenged to converse in micro burst of text. Will this cross over to our daily lives and interactions with our families or fellow co-workers? Will this change our way of thinking and processing? Will we adapt and become proficient in multitasking and rapidly making decisions? This still remains to be seen.
I for one am still exploring the value of social networking and micro blogging. I can see that it can be a powerful way to interact with hundreds of people at once, but I also see how it can destroy productivity and consistent thought flow. To stave the psychological drive that I have to communicate with others and seek social validation I created a few simple guidelines for myself. They have greatly increased my productivity and still allowed me to be active in the social community and to respond to the multiple interruptions that I receive throughout the day.
Bay steps to freedom. *See confession below*
On average I receive 60-80 personal emails a day. These may be support emails, questions about products, request for information etc. I was at the point where I was checking my email every 10 minutes to make sure that no one had to wait for a response. This was an ABSOLUTE productivity killer and I was in ‘constant’ reaction mode. It was an emotional yo-yo that affected the way I responded to my staff and family. This was an incredibly hard habit to break, but I managed to develop a way to handle my emails quickly and efficiently and with amazing focus.
I schedule 3 times that I would check my email, morning, after lunch, and at the end of the day. I gave myself one hour to answer all of my emails – each section broken up into a 20 minute time period. I set a timer, and then focused purely on getting as many emails answered as I could in my allotted time. When the timer went off, I closed my email and moved to my next task on my list. The amazing thing, because I knew that I had only twenty minutes – I was able to focus completely on my task and be extremely productive. This system works great for me.
I have also found that if there is truly an emergency (which I always worried about – that was one of my reasons for constantly checking my email) that they ‘will’ find other ways to get in touch with you.
If you are working on a project, set a timer for 30 minutes – and work solely on that project for 30 minutes. Build your time up to 50 minutes and then take a 10 minute break to brainstorm and let your mind explore. I have found that at MAX I am able to code – or be hyper productive where it takes complete focus for only 5-6 hours a day -However setting the timer at 50 minute intervals keeps me focused and driven.
Make a list, and follow the list! This sounds simple, but it is much more than just the activity of writing a to-do list. Psychologically it is a powerful affirmation of things that you will get done. You are involving your physiology in the process – and many times just the pure process of physically writing the list will help you expand on ideas or tasks that you need to accomplish. Writing accesses a different part of the brain – so expect other ideas and creative additions to become manifest as you begin creating your lists.
Set aside 20 minutes a day for social media. As I said above, I use a daily task list to get the most out of my days. I do the same for social media – like Twitter. On my to-do list I leave 20 minutes for Forum posts, blogs and Twitter. I will jot little notes or things that I want to converse about. I give myself 3 opportunities during the day to post to social media sites.
The above tasks are simple, but they have played a powerful role in helping me take back control of my life. The difference is I still feel connected, but I feel more in control and less reactionary. I can feel the difference as my stress level has decreased and the emotional roller coaster ride I used to take each day has disappeared – that amusement park has closed down. My family and my fellow co-workers are grateful for the change – and I feel like I have regained an important piece of my life and my sanity.
In my next article I will discuss the value you receive from social media and the impact that it has on your life and your business.
I truly hope this article is helpful to everyone that reads it. I understand the psychological pull for connection and the need to communicate. I for one am glad to have found a way to focus – and regain my ability to be productivity; it has given me a chance to spend more time with my family and my wonderful darling daughter who I love so much. I hope this article helps you experience just a little more freedom in your life and provides you with a few insights that enable you to spend more quality time with your family and friends.
*** (I must admit here, that while writing this article I developed a tool to help me monitor my tasks and remain on schedule. I developed a simple Flash application that runs on my desktop. It allows me to add the tasks I want to accomplish, and set a timer for each task. Once the time runs out on that task, an alarm sounds, and I can move on to the next task. If you are interested in this tool, I will package it into an executable and make it available for everyone.) ***
To learn more about Stephen Knight and FMWebschool, please follow me on Twitter at –
Thursday, May 21, 2009
Micro Focus Part 1
By Stephen Knight
It was a normal weekend and I was taking a relaxing stroll through the neighborhood with my wife. We came upon a group of children playing a game of kick ball. Right away I was swept back to childhood playing kickball in my backyard. All of the neighborhood kids loved to play kickball at our house because we had a huge flat backyard – with a 6 foot high fence. Kick the ball over the opposite fence and it was the same as scoring a home run.
We stood and watched the children for a minute, not much seemed to change – except… what was she doing? The girl that was supposed to be up next to kick ran over to her cell phone and began texting furiously. I could tell by the telltale ‘thumbs-a-flying” technique which I as an adult had never mastered.
Over the course of the next 5 minutes this little girl ran back to her phone a half dozen times. She couldn’t even focus on the game – this 10 year old girl was already beginning to play her part in a “Micro-Focused” society. In this article I’m going to explain how Micro Focus is taking over our ability to focus and be productive. Our mind is playing a peripheral game of ping-pong – we are losing the ability to maintain long term focus and produce quality results in our endeavors.
Psychologists say this is a real problem – as humans we have an incredible filtering system that allows us to be bombarded with sounds, thoughts, and internal and external stimulus. Our mind is so advanced that we are instantly able to filter out what is necessary – and we are able to instantly stamp a level of value to that stimulus – and we do this all unconsciously.
That’s one of the reasons why we can be in a car daydreaming and suddenly we find ourselves tuned into a radio commercial. We’ve unconsciously ignored all of the other advertisements, but suddenly something triggered in our mind and we are now interested in what is being said. We’ve applied a value to this commercial and now our conscious mind is prompting us to pay attention. Here is where the trouble starts.
It is the Value Level that we have used for years that is actually causing us problems now. The same values that make our conscious mind pay attention to certain stimuli also come with different levels of emotional attachment.
The greater the emotional level, the more we pay attention – the more “value” we place on this stimulus, the greater chance that we will physically take action. Our conscious mind will step in and demand some type of action. Our reactions will vary depending on the stimuli; we may react in anger, reciprocity or the need for self fulfillment. But the difference is, we take action.
Why now? Why are we losing our ability to focus on one task and be productive? A few of reasons, validation, social proof and fear are strong triggers that demand attention. The new world of social media / networking has put tools in our hands that can be immensely valuable – yet many of us are not psychologically ready to handle the responsibility that comes with this new environment. Individuals actually split into multiple personalities to conform to their online persona.
Let’s take Twitter as an example. Twitter is an online social networking site that allows individuals to communicate in short 160 word bursts. Twitter was created so you could tell your friends in just a few words what you are doing. “I’m going to go see Star Trek”. “I’m at the deli ordering a club sandwich”. On the onset this seems to be pretty benign.
The more you Twitter the more friends will be following you. In no time you can have literally hundreds of people following you – and all of them posting about their day. Suddenly something extremely simple has become so much more. Expectations are suddenly attached – and with those expectations – emotions.
The fact is we become reactionary – we begin to feel the NEED to Twitter, and the need to comment, we suddenly have the feeling of responsibility. Over the past few weeks of observing Twitter there are individuals that post all day long incessantly. They feel the need to be connected; everyone else after all is doing it (Social Proof) so I need to do it to. I also need to feel important (Validation) so I need to Twitter about all of the amazing things that I am doing in my life.
Is Twitter bad? No, not at all it can be a very valuable tool for business and a way to communicate with friends. The danger comes when you feel that in the middle of working on a project that you have a “responsibility to post”. We have to establish guidelines and instead of reacting to emotions that we place on online communities – we have to step back and look at the reality of the situation.
Ask yourself intelligent questions that lead to more productivity and to a positive outcome. Do I visit the Twitter website more than 3 times a day? What are the triggers – why do I feel the need to continually visit and post to Twitter? Could I be more productive if I changed my Twitter habits to twice a day? How could I use Twitter to benefit me and my goals? How can I incorporate Twitter into a process that helps build productivity and is part of a focused plan?
I’m not just picking on Twitter, as an experiment as I typed this article; I left all of the bells and whistles on my computer and set my cell phone beside me on my desk. In the short hour that it has taken me to write this article, numerous text messages have come through, my Skype line has rang several times, I’ve received several messages from Google Talk and Skype, and the little flag that lets me know that I have emails have popped up several times. I’ve also been interrupted twice by employees coming to my office to ask questions.
But this is the world that we live in. This is the world we have created that takes away our ability to focus. It is all of these little micro elements of interruption that capture our attention. As my phone Skype went off I took a look at the number and I made sure that I captured the call into voicemail.
My eyes flickered down to look at the email flag to make sure it wasn’t emergency support. Google Talk and Skype Instant Messages – I checked those to make sure I wasn’t needed immediately – yet they still triggered a “value” inside of me that caused a reaction.
The typical person checks their email 5 times a day. There are many people that I work with that check their email constantly – every ten minutes they are checking their email. 82% of people have either Skype or some sort of instant message software running continually on their computer as they work.
We are losing the ability to focus – we are becoming a society that is living life in Micro Blasts of reaction to stimulus. Productivity actually when broken down equates to simplicity. It breaks down to having a plan of action and making decisions. It is understanding the emotional value that we place on things and acknowledging the difference between action and reacting.
Next Month I’ll cover -
So what can we do to begin to break our pattern of reacting? What can we do to make ourselves more productive? How can we begin to live life in the moment and not be ruled by emotions that we have attached to our social interactions be they online or in life? How can we establish new guidelines and procedures that allow us to feel that we are still fulfilling expectations while not being reactionary?
I would love to hear your thoughts! Please feel free to post your thoughts!
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