On focusing

When I began writing for a living, I worked crazy hours trying to make ends meet. It seemed like I was working 90 hours a week and I was always broke. Then I realized that I was not applying the principles of bushido to my work, that I had let my fear of not being able to make a living throw my entire life out of balance. By focusing on those tasks that were really necessary and discarding the rest, I was able to work far fewer hours and make more money.

During the heyday of my insane work schedule, I was always trying to do things faster, more efficiently. I would edit documents while talking on the phone while playing a game with my then-toddler daughter. I never left the house without documents to read at red lights, calls to make while standing in line at the grocery store. I kept a list of things I could do while I was on hold so that the time wouldn’t be wasted.

Everything around me encouraged that behavior. Magazine articles trumpeted ways to manicure your nails while waiting in line at the department of motor vehicles. Friends told stories of their multi-tasking triumphs. People who waited in the doctor’s office without work to do seemed lazy and unmotivated.

When I stopped the insanity, my life suddenly became more pleasant – and not just because I was working less. Because I started focusing on one thing at a time, I felt less harried and distracted. I still managed to get everything done that needed to be done, amazingly enough. Even better, I wasn’t yelling at my daughter and the dogs (and my friends and my neighbors) all the time because I was stretched to the snapping point. I had fewer stupid mishaps – I stopped dumping pots full of boiling water on my feet because I was trying to read a manuscript while making tea. I started pampering myself a little more – if my nails needed a manicure, I went to the salon or devoted half an hour to it on a Sunday evening, instead of grabbing a nail file while I was waiting in line. If I had to stand in line at the post office, I talked to the other people in line. What a concept! The post office clerks got to know my daughter and me by name.

Now if I have a chapter to write or a document to edit, that’s what I do. I focus on it, experience it, let myself feel frustrated when the words won’t come, am ready with a smile when the words do come. I’m not thinking about the next thing on my list that needs to get done. I do this project until it’s done, or until I can’t do anymore on it. I don’t check my email or answer the phone or even answer the door (people think this is slightly eccentric of me, but it’s my house so I get to set the rules.)

When I have a project I’m working on and I’m tempted to break the rules and try to do five or six other things at the same time, I remind myself of the master who is performing a kata in the dojo. You don’t interrupt the master. You wait until he’s finished. Why not show myself the same respect? Let myself work uninterrupted until I’ve finished or have reached a good stopping point? The master doesn’t stop what he’s doing just because he remembered he’s supposed to pick up bread at the grocery store. He does the kata, and he does it beautifully – and then he runs to the grocery store.


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