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Using Pre-Mortems to Find the Opposition to Our Focus

Published 8/23/2019

In today's episode, we're talking about why we lose focus and how we can get back into a focus state when it's lost.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
Focus. This is a word that we've all heard for basically our whole lives. When we're young, we're told to focus on the test and as we grow up, we're told that focus is critical to success. Alongside the word productivity, focus has become almost a buzzword. In fact, one of the first episodes of this show was dedicated to the concept of focus. And it seems elusive. It's a strange phenomenon. It feels like we should be able to direct our brains to focus. And yet it continues to elude us. Even the best of us, even the ones who have meditated for every day in the past, you know, 20 years. We still become distracted. We still lose focus. My name is Jonathan Cutrell. You're listening to Developer Tea and my goal on the show is to help driven developers find clarity, perspective, and purpose in their careers. And in order to advance in your career, in order to accomplish what you have in front of you even today, focus is critical. And if you're listening to this show, then you've probably heard a lot of other podcasts. Maybe you've watched TED Talks. You've even read books on the subject of inducing focus states. You may know about the concept of flow. You may understand that planning your day out may help you focus. You may also understand that having something like the Pomodoro technique can help you focus. These are things we've talked about on the show before. But in today's episode, I want to take a different angle on the concept of focus. Maybe shift the frame a little bit and look at it from the other side. In order to understand focus, perhaps we need to understand what our opposition to focus actually is. Before we label exactly what that opposition is, I want you to take note of wherever you are right now. Have you been able to listen to every word of this podcast? Or what about the activity that you were doing right before you listened to this show? Were you able to totally commit all of your energy to that activity? So what degree are you distracted at this very moment? Even if you are listening to every single word of this episode, are you able to stop thinking about what you have to do tonight? Maybe you are like me and you check your email kind of compulsively. Or maybe you are preoccupied with some kind of long-running thing happening in your life right now. All of these things are background ways that our focus is lost. But I want you to do a simple exercise today. And if it's the middle of the day, then do this on behalf of tomorrow. Do this exercise in preparation for tomorrow. If you're listening to this early enough in the morning, maybe you listen to this on your morning jog or something like that, then I want you to do this exercise for today. I want you to fast forward in your mind and visualize sitting at home or on the train on your way home. And I want you to play out two scenarios. The first scenario that I want you to play out is the most common outcome that we have in our days. You didn't get everything done that you wanted to. I want you to imagine the feeling of stress, maybe the slight tinge of guilt or regret that you may have, and I want you to think about what happened. Rewind in your day to understand what exactly happened to prevent you from finishing whatever you're trying to finish. Of course, the second scenario that I want you to play out is kind of derived from the first scenario. Take the things that you identified having happened that prevented you from finishing what you were trying to finish. And imagine that you did something different. Imagine that you successfully denied those interruptions. Maybe you successfully denied those temptations and you were able to get done what you set out to get done. Now I want you to imagine the lack of fear or the lack of guilt or the lack of frustration or regret that you provided for yourself. Now, here's what I want you to do with this first kind of visualization where you identified the things that may hold you back from accomplishing what you want to accomplish. I want you to identify the ones that you have some level of control over. Now, of course, control is kind of a funny thing. Control for one day may be very different than a longer term control. For example, you may be in a job right now that you can't just quit and get a new one right away, but it's possible that in a long term, you do have more control over that situation. So scope your concept of control to today only. So identify the things that are actually controllable by you. And then the second part of this, this is kind of the tricky part. I want you to identify ways that you may influence the remainder of that list. In other words, perhaps you have direct control over your own distractions. You may be able to install some kind of content blocking or even lock your phone away in the desk if that's a distraction to you, but you may not have direct control over the volume of the office around you. You might be able to practice some kind of indirect control over that volume by wearing headphones. This is a very simplified example, and there are certainly harder examples on that list. So here's what we've done. We've identified that the opposition to our focus, if you're like most people, is probably ourselves. We are the ones who stand in the way of ourselves focusing. Now this doesn't mean that we carry the blame. Focusing is a difficult thing to do. In the same way that we stand in the way of ourselves becoming pro athletes, just because we are the opposition doesn't mean that we're somehow at fault for not being able to focus. We need to approach this subject though with more awareness of what is causing us to lose our focus as developers. Now the visualization technique that I just explained is called the pre-mortem. And then that second piece, I don't know what to call it, maybe a pre-visualization of success, whatever you want to call that. But the pre-mortem is something that is often done by teams at the end of a project to try to identify where they think the project may go wrong. And you can do this in advance because you have a strong intuition when you work backwards from a failure, rather than working from your current position into a failure. I challenge you to try this pre-mortem at the day level. Try to understand your most important tasks for the day. This is a very common way of journaling in the morning, what is the thing that you really want to get done, and then conduct your pre-mortem. Try to imagine what went wrong to prevent you from focusing and accomplishing what you wanted to accomplish. Now here's one caveat to this. It's very possible that what you've put on your list of things to accomplish is not even possible for you to finish even if you are totally focused. You may be biting off more than you can chew. This is actually part of the goal for the second part of that visualization where you imagine that you addressed all of those focus issues. Is it even feasible for you to do what you have on that list of things to do? Most people are overconfident about what they can accomplish in a given amount of time. So it's important that we adjust for this and that we still imagine that pre-mortem, that we can imagine that things don't go as planned and therefore even if our maximum focus is utilized, we still can't finish what we'd hoped to finish. On the other side of this, you should have a relatively robust little game plan for your day. Things of dealing with certain types of distractions or environments that you find yourself in throughout the day that otherwise you wouldn't have been prepared for. I'll leave you with one final thought. If you go throughout your day today and you end up being distracted and you don't get done what you expect to get done, I encourage you, don't beat yourself up over this. Things are difficult to understand and even when we are at our best, even when we're trying our hardest and we're totally dedicated to something, we still fail. And this is okay. We need to learn more about ourselves and recognize that we're not static, that we're always changing. And some days we're just going to be distracted. Some days we're going to be on fire. But ironically, if we expect ourselves to be on fire every single day, it's going to be harder to be on fire ever because our expectations are actually stressing us out to the point where we can't really enter that flow state. In any case, I hope that you can find focus in your work today. Thank you so much for listening to this show. Today's episode wouldn't be possible without our wonderful producer Sarah Jackson and the SPEC network. You can go and find other shows like Developer Teaat SPEC.fm. Thank you so much for listening and until next time, enjoy your tea.