You're not that focused. Learn to ignore.
Issue 60: Exploring ignoring as a creative skill
Focus time. We’ve all put that block on the calendar to get things done. The expectations of deep work often turns into the reality of having 50 browsers open while replying to Slack messages during that time. In both the physical and digital world, distractions are abundant, and we’re not as focused as we may think. What's the root cause? You’re not ignoring enough things.
"Ignore" gets a bad rap. The definition of it is to refuse to take notice of or acknowledge; disregard intentionally. I believe people associate ignore with neglect, which is the failure to care properly. Ignoring is not neglecting. The ability to ignore everything around you to focus on the objective at hand is a critical skill. This is why a horse wears blinders during a race to focus on the track.
Ignoring is a creative and professional skill. Focus cannot exist without ignoring things around you. It’s impossible to focus on multiple things. Solving creative problems requires deep focus and thinking, yet physical and remote workspaces are optimized for the opposite—interruption and notifications.
This skill isn’t about your personal life. You probably shouldn’t give people the silent treatment and ignore relationships. This is about the work. I live with a cat. I learn from the best when it comes to ignoring people. The ability to ignore people gives you the adequate time to solve problems. In the work place, there will be various needs from people vying for your attention. It’s important to triage the ones that need timely responses, but treating all correspondences with the same urgency will overwhelm you. I learned in a former job that not all requests from people are emergencies and there will be an infinite amount of asks. The key is to find times to be responsive and set boundaries of when you’ll get back to people. Learn to ignore people. There are a lot of them.
Digital distractions are dangerous because there is no physical manifestation of how it piles up. Imagine having a dozen people surrounding you and chatting. That’s the equivalent of having Slack open. I don’t ever have app notifications on—both my personal life and work. Instead, I opt for times in the hour that I’ll check and see if something needs my attention. I don’t want a notification system to control my workflow.
“You have distracted me from my creative process.” —Kanye West
I personally have an annual quota of Steve Jobs references since it gets overused in tech. However, there are valid lessons from the quotes and experiences. With it being two days away from the 10-year anniversary of the Apple co-founder’s, let's reflect on what Jony Ive told Vanity Fair on what he learned about focus while working with Steve:
"Steve was the most remarkably focused person I've ever met in my life. The thing with focus is that it's not this thing you aspire to, like: 'Oh, on Monday I'm going to be focused,'" said Ive. "It's every minute: 'Why are we talking about this? This is what we're working on.' You can achieve so much when you truly focus."
Focus isn't an activity. It is being mindful of the end destination derived from the intention you initially set. It's driving to the the destination and ignoring is driving past all the stops that could be interesting. Distractions are fun, and hard to ignore.
Creating a focus space to ignore things
It's important to have a focus space in physical and digital environments. I’ve found two hacks to create a space you can escape from the distractions.
Create a separate user account on your computer
You don't need a separate device to create a digital focus space. Create another account on your computer to keep distractions at bay. You can set up apps you need to focus on and ignore others that could distract you. In my focus space, I don't have messaging/chat apps installed or logged into social media...just authoring and creator tools. These distractions not on your machine make a big difference because the friction of having to install apps or log in might be enough to keep you from being distracted. In the same way you might not realize how many times you pick up your phone, the same goes with context switching between apps.
Carve out a physical focus space, make it sacred
I’m working on an exciting home project of turning our garage into a creative studio space. It’s difficult for me to explore projects in my work office because of the stench of Zoom meetings in there. The aura a space contains is critical for doing your best creative work and focusing. Whether it's a corner of a studio apartment, a separate room, or a favorite coffee shop, make that space sacred to focusing—so sacred you're inclined to dip your fingers in holy water upon entering.
Ignoring as a way of saying "not right now"
Focus cannot exist without ignoring. You have to transport to a space of interruption in both the physical and digital realm. In a world of much distraction, it's important to say, "Not now, I need to focus on my creative work."