Finding Focused Think Time

“I focus all my free thinking time on this one task and I keep refocusing my mind on it over and over and over again.”

That was the answer to my question, “How do you remember these things?” That was 24 years ago and I was 19 at the time. I was speaking to an instructor some 6 years my senior. He played a stump game, challenging us to give him a five-word phrase from a 531-page religious book. We were mesmerized and played along reading him the most abstract, generic phrases we could find. After a few moments of thinking, time and again, he would nail the answer replying with the book, chapter and verse give or take a few verses. We were just amazed. How did he do this once, we had no idea but over and over again, we were clueless. Had he memorized the book? It was hard to believe.

For 2 straight weeks this game went on every morning and we kept digging for the most generic five words we could find.

But nothing we found could stump him and each day he would smile and look back at us with that smirk of triumph. His track record was 14-0 and we were left wondering if we had a mole among us sneaking him the answer. We were amazed that he had nearly memorized this entire book. He claimed that he didn’t have a photographic memory, but instead that he had spent hundreds of hours thinking about context, connections and strings of relationships that weaved one character and story and location with another. In essence he had ‘indexed’ that book with his brain. We just stared in amazement and I remember saying to him I could never do such a thing. His calculated reply still rings in my ears to this day:

You are just as capable as I am. The one thing you might be lacking is focused thinking, patience and persistence.

Was it true? Could I do this? Now 24 years later I still ask the question. Indeed I haven’t done such a thing and my memory seems to have gotten worse over the years but the principles ring as true today as they did then and they play out most days as I prepare for my day’s work. The pervasive principle here is the power of a focused brain and so I try to listen to my thoughts and to focus my thinking on people and problems that matter each and ever day asking myself:

  • Who, and what is on my mind and why is it there?
  • Is that thing important for me today, tomorrow, some day or never?
  • Who is best positioned to tackle that thing, me or another?
  • What are my priorities for today?

Then as I work through the day, I have systems of offloading the random thoughts that interrupt me so I can patiently persist to refocus my brain time and time again on the present task. Since 2015, years before I was part of the Appigo company, Todo was and is my go-to task tool. A quick note there or into Evernote allows me to get back to my primary objective.

Most recently, I’ve also added ‘sprint timers’ to my workflow which is the equivalent of me creating 30-45 minute blocks of consistent work without any interruption. I turn off email, slack and the phone until that time lapses.

The dedicated time to think has increased my productivity in important ways and the system for offloading interruptive ideas gives me loads of things to do when I have free brain cycles. I still haven’t attempted to index a large book. That doesn’t quite seem efficient for me right now, but the focused thinking and patient, persistent refocusing is an important part of my productivity system.

What do you think? Do these principles have a place in your system of work? What else do you do to deal with interruptions, low motivation, or other productivity challenges? I’d love to hear.

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