Whether we were studying for final exams in college, putting in the daily effort to prepare for the FE or PE exam, or trying to get any sort of task done at work, we’ve all faced the challenge of trying to focus but simply not being able to. Maybe it’s a coworker or a classmate that asks for something, maybe it's the phone that keeps ringing, or maybe it’s as simple as our cell phone staring at us. Today, Mark jumps back on to address this exact challenge and how to develop the skills to handle it.
In order to be effective, we need to focus and get things done. However, that’s not how it actually works in practice. Even though we all have deadlines to meet and only a handful of really important things to tackle, the world keeps going, and other things that may not be as important also pop up and require our attention. On the other hand, we may need to focus on a particular task but, instead of being interrupted, we simply can’t get other things out of our head, which negatively affects our results with the task at hand.
Learning how to get into a state of mind in which we can simply block everything out and focus on what we’re doing is essential. By elaborating on this concept and further discussing topics such as how to handle multiple projects, how to pick what’s a priority or not, how to allocate time to do high-priority tasks, and how to fully pay attention to the task at hand, Isaac and Mark provide the tools and techniques we can use to handle such situations.
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Transcript of Show
You can download our show notes summary here or get our transcript of the show below!
Isaac Oakeson: All right! Hey! What's going on, everybody? I'm excited to be here with you on another fun podcast episode. I've got Mark with me today. How's it going, Mark?
Mark Oakeson: Hey, everybody! It's going great. Glad to be here again.
Isaac Oakeson: Yes. I'm glad you're here too. So today we wanted to talk about maintaining focus and being able to sustain that because there's so much taking our attention away in today's world. And so it gets really hard to actually focus on stuff, including your studies, whether you're studying for the FE exam, you're studying for the PE exam. Or even when you're at work and you've got a million things open and you've got your phone blaring at you and blinking at you. All of that fun stuff.
Mark Oakeson: Yeah. It can get tough. Pay attention.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah, we don't like that. So it gets kind of nasty out there. So today we wanted to talk about how to maintain focus and, really, if you can maintain focus, not only are you going to have a more productive day, but I think results for whatever you're trying to do are going to go up.
Mark Oakeson: Yes. To be effective, you have to learn how to focus.
Isaac Oakeson: So Mark, take us through -- I mean, this was a topic that we kind of thought about. Why did it pop up in your mind to talk about this? What was kind of the background?
Mark Oakeson: Well, because I struggle with this every single day. It's something that -- I have a set list of tasks that I have prioritized that I need to accomplish during a day, and I get interrupted just constantly, all day long. And it's stuff that pops up that requires my attention. Stuff that maybe is happening on a job site that requires my experience or expertise to land my opinion on what ought to be done to handle the situation. Those things happen all day long. But that distracts me from my main line items that I need to get done for the day so that I can remain productive. And so, I have to prioritize those things, right? Usually, my phone's ringing all day long, but I have to prioritize what's important and what's not so I can remain focused. So, it's just something that I deal with all day long. And it's something that I continually strive to do, retain focus on what I'm trying to do at work. And it's a challenge. And I bet there's a lot of people that have the same challenge I do. So I thought this would be something good to talk about.
Isaac Oakeson: So, I guess, what that leads to in my mind is, if we are going to try to do anything well, we have to be able to pay attention to it. How do we decide? I mean, some of those things automatically come up. Like, what do we need to prioritize? What do we need to pay attention to?
Mark Oakeson: Well, that is up to you and how you prioritize your work. So obviously, everybody has deadlines. Everybody has, I would say, those tasks that are a priority in you meeting your goals and in your position as an engineer. There are some main things that have to get done. For example, in my career, I do a lot of team building and design assist type things. And when I'm involved with designers that are trying to pursue the best course of action to most economically design a structure, and I'm lending my opinions and my expertise to that, I have to get that done and it has to be in a timely fashion. I have to meet a deadline and that takes some focus, right? To get all that done. And so I have to prioritize that sometimes. Sometimes those tasks take just one day of really good focus and I just kind of have to block everything else out. Sometimes it's just a few hours. But with our cell phones, and emails, and things constantly vying for our attention, even other colleagues within your office building or within your office, it can distract you from that deep concentration that you need to maintain to get those important tasks done. So really prioritizing is up to you, but the stuff that needs to be prioritized are those tasks that -- I call them mainline career kind of tasks that you're in charge of.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah, I agree. It kind of reminds me, you know, in this era of COVID, a lot of people are working from home and some people have even said that they've been able to, while they're at home now, have been able to focus more. It's kind of a mixed bag. I mean, if you have kids and stuff, some people are saying it's horrible to work home sometimes. But I've noticed people are working -- Sometimes they're working longer because, you know, you don't have all the distractions of coworkers coming over to talk to you. You just wake up and you just start going to work, and all of a sudden the day's flying by. So, I agree. Everybody's going to have their own individual tasks and I think it requires a certain skill to be able to practice paying attention to things.
Mark Oakeson: Yes. I agree with that.
Isaac Oakeson: You know, I think it's really hard to multitask when you've got --
Mark Oakeson: Yeah. I think that's an impossible thing to do. You can't multitask. You can split your attention up and you can focus on one thing for a really short duration and then move to another thing for really short duration. But there really isn't such a thing as multitasking. You're really just splitting your attention up.
Isaac Oakeson: So I guess the question then is, how do we practice this? How do we practice paying attention? How do we hone this as a skill that we can develop?
Mark Oakeson: Well, that's a good question. You have to practice being in a state of deep focus. So if you can practice being -- Sometimes this state of mind is called being "mindful" or "mindfulness". And I think it's at the core of most, I would say meditation programs, if anybody's ever gone through serious meditation programs where they teach you how to be mindful, how to close your eyes and kind of be mindful of your heartbeat and the rhythm of your breath, and the way your body is feeling and your environment around you, and just being in the moment. It's a good idea to practice those kinds of things maybe just for like three, four, five minutes at a time. Just practice being mindful and being able to calmly kind of block out any environmental distractions that may be going on and just focus on your state of being, your state of mind, you know? Your heartbeat, your breath. Just the way you feel. If you can concentrate on that, even just for a little bit, you'll be able to build your skills up on being mindful. And, like I said, I think that's at the core of most meditation programs. If anybody's ever gone through something like that, that's what they teach you to do.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. And there's another resource out there. I believe it's called Deep Work, where you get into a state where you're performing deep work, which is, you know, you're not distracted by things, you're able to really create something or focus on what you need to check or, you know, QA/QC, or whatever it is. But, that's by Cal newport and it is called Deep Work. But if you can get yourself in that kind of mindset -- And I've noticed this when I was preparing for the PE exam. You know, it might take practice, but eventually you get into a rhythm of practicing problems and you do get yourself back into kind of those college days when you were studying for an exam and you'd have to really sit down and solve these problems. I consider that definitely deep work, when you can set up your environment to do that.
Mark Oakeson: Yeah. That's one of the things I enjoy about engineering is when I'm in that zone, you know? And you're kind of -- You're confronted with a problem and you've got the skills to solve the problem, and you kind of know the sequence and how to get from point a to point B. And being in that zone where everything kind of comes together, I really enjoy being in that state of mind. That's one of the things I enjoy about engineering.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. That kind of flips the switches and you know you need to start thinking, put your thinking cap on and really solve a problem, or remember how to go look it up, at least, and go study how to solve it. Something like that.
Mark Oakeson: Right. So, if you're somebody who's, like, generally distracted by your cell phone easily, or any little environmental situation that may distract you, if you're one of those people that gets just disrupted easily, then maybe that's something you have to look at. Practicing that kind of meditation, being able to be mindful in a way where you're kind of blocking everything out and just focusing on one thing. It's a good thing to practice.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah, I agree. And I guess another thing that you could practice is just being, like -- You know, practicing being your best attention. Try to practice giving attention, whether that's to other people, paying attention instead of focusing on other things going on, focusing on the words they're saying, paying attention to the details going on. Because there are some times, I swear, you could be talking to your boss and you notice some green thing in his teeth and everything else is just going over the head. I don't know.
Mark Oakeson: Yeah. No, be a good attention giver, you know? It's so easily, especially when you're just in conversation with maybe a colleague or even anybody in your family, it's really easy to try to pay attention to what they're saying and then you're distracted by a text or something. And your phone, "bling, bling, bling bling".
Isaac Oakeson: Oh.... My wife does not like me on the phone.
Mark Oakeson: You're so tempted to look at that text, that email, or whatever that notification was on your phone because you're distracted. And then you lose, you know, the train of conversation with that person. I've done that with the subordinates at my work and it's not good. They'll be talking to me and then I can hear their voice kind of waning off, you know? And I realize "Oh, no. I gotta pay attention to this". But it's usually during those times when "Man, I've just got so many things coming at me and I'm trying to multitask", right? And you just can't do it. So you gotta be a good attention giver and just focus on that one thing at a time and then go to the next one.
Isaac Oakeson: And everyone's just running a hundred miles an hour, you know? It's hard to do that. But like I said. My wife -- You know, I get complained to that I'm on my phone a lot too. If you have kids, you know, they want your attention too. So if you're on your phone a lot, that's not always the best thing.
Mark Oakeson: Yeah. So be your best attention giver, right?
Isaac Oakeson: You know, I've always been impressed by, like, artists that are able to sit down and can really paint a picture with so many details or they capture a moment with like so many emotions in that painting or picture. You know that required a lot of attention to be able to do that. And it's the same thing with engineering when you're out there solving or doing your task or whatever. You know, you get your mindset into that deep state of work and you can do some good work too.
Mark Oakeson: Yeah. You gotta get into that creative zone. So be your best attention giver. We can talk about, too, selecting your area of focus, right? So we kind of briefly mentioned this in setting your priorities, right? You can't focus on everything. So you gotta choose what you're going to focus on throughout the day. You can't do everything at that deep level that we're talking about. So you gotta pick what's most important and then allocate enough time so you can get into that state of deep focus and then block everything else out.
Isaac Oakeson: I've noticed with everyone at work had to upgrade to Microsoft Office or outlook, whatever the latest outlook is, and I'm noticing now, when everything has been uploaded to the cloud now, that Microsoft is sending specific reports now on like analytics of how much email you get, how many meetings you have. And if you actually, like, click on these links and you read their analytics they set up. They now will block out time for you and they call it focus time. Because I think they understand, you know, that people arent't able to do work unless you can block out time to do stuff.
Mark Oakeson: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly.
Isaac Oakeson: I thought that was kind of interesting with this Microsoft updates that they're really diving into the analytics of your emails and they know now how many meetings you have and where you're [inaudible] and all that.
Mark Oakeson: Yeah. Well, that's probably a good thing. That's interesting.
Isaac Oakeson: Anyway, I think there's tons of books and resources out there on how, you know, to focus your attention. You know, you mentioned prioritizing your tasks. And I think we've mentioned before, mentioning Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, where he details the rock scenario, where they put the -- You know, you have sand and the gradient of rocks goes up and they ask people to put it all in a jar. And people that put in the sand first never are able to fill it in. So you have to do it reverse. You do your big task first, you put in the big rocks, and then you can fill it in with the rest.
Mark Oakeson: Right, right. Yeah. That's a good visual. Yeah. And the bottom line is, I mean, losing your focus is just not a personal issue, but I mean, it can cost the company that you work for, the firm that you work for. I mean, it's got costs associated with it right? And if you're constantly starting, like, new projects and you're really enthusiastic and going after them, and then you're hit with another project that you've got to focus on, then what happens to that first project? Does it ever get done? And then you're on the second project. Maybe you get a hit with a third one, you know? Does the second or the first one get done? It can get crazy and things can pile on, but you gotta focus on one thing at a time and get it done. And it might be that the first project that you're working on, maybe that gets a backseat. Maybe it's not as important as the second project, but you gotta be able to focus on one thing at a time, complete it, then go on to the one. If you just keep letting things pile on, I mean, you may never get anything done. And that's costly for your organization.
Isaac Oakeson: I think if you bring up a good point there. I specifically remember in interviews that I've had for positions and the position I have now, that that was one of the questions that they asked and that we asked candidates is, you know, how would you manage multiple projects at one time? And how do you determine what's a priority or not? And I think the point of that question is just to try to figure out how they prioritize things, what they focus on, and kind of get their response on how do they deal with a large workload, how do they manage stress like that. I don't know if you've ever been asked questions like that or asked those kind of questions, but it's kind of an interesting one.
Mark Oakeson: I've been asked those questions. Yeah. Can't say that I've been the one asking that one, but I have been asked that question.
Isaac Oakeson: So, you know, if you're listening to this and there is a potential job interview out there, those kinds of questions do creep up where they like to ask you how you handle multiple projects at one time and how you're going to tackle that and focus on doing those.
Mark Oakeson: Yeah.So anyway, I'd say if we were to walk away from this, the big takeaways here is determine what your strengths are, practice being mindful, right? Practice meditating and being in that mindful state of mind. Make sure that you're allocating some times where you can be deeply focused on the task at hand. Whatever you've prioritized, make sure you're allocating time for that. And it's not a hundred percent of the time because you do have to deal with the emails and all the other stuff that's constantly interrupting you, but make sure you're allocating some time that you can do that deep focus and get those prioritized tasks done. I think that's the big takeaway here.
Isaac Oakeson: Good deal. Well, everyone needs to learn how to focus a little better out there to pay attention on tasks at hand. So, hopefully this was valuable to people. We'll list some of the resources we talked about in our show notes. Mark, anything else you want to touch on, on being able to keep your focus, maintain it?
Mark Oakeson: No. I'd just say that, you know, practice. If you're having a hard time with it, then practice. There's a bunch of resources for meditation that you can -- You know, apps that you can download. There's a bunch of resources that way, if that's what you need to do to, you know, practice being mindful, then do it.
Isaac Oakeson: So go home, go home tonight, and turn on your favorite sport show, and then when your wife's talking, you know, practice giving her all the attention in the world. That's what you need to go do.
Mark Oakeson: Isaac's getting a little autobiographical here.
Isaac Oakeson: I'm just kidding. But you know what I mean.
Mark Oakeson: I know what you mean.
Isaac Oakeson: Good points. Good topic of discussion. Definitely something we can all work on and practice. And it trickles into job interviews and everything else. This will trickle into your studies for FE, PE, and everything else that's going on. So definitely a good topic. Thanks Mark for joining me today and we'll see you in another one, I'm sure.
Mark Oakeson: Okay. See you next time.
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