When Everything’s Important, Nothing Is

You really can get more done by focusing on less.

Spoiler alert: in The Incredibles, the villain, Syndrome, is trying to destroy the superheroes, not by attacking them directly, but by creating the technological equivalent of super powers so anyone can be super. He’s stopped before he can get that far, of course, but that’s the plan. It’s the end he has in mind.

Syndrome knows that it won’t be enough to kill them. He has to remove what’s special about them. Unique. “When everyone’s super,” he concludes his monologue, eyes narrowing in resentment. “No one will be.” (For a more in-depth exploration of how this works, read The Fountainhead. It’s same plot, with no capes.)

This isn’t just the stuff of disillusioned geniuses in bright spandex and weighty philosophical tomes. You’re doing this to yourself every day. It’s destroying your productivity. You’ve decided that so many things in your life are important, nothing is.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/Jezperklauzen

What’s important needs to stand out. When you’ve identified the most important thing you should be focusing on, protect it. Don’t let things that are unimportant pull you down.

  • Turn off most notifications. How many times a day have you asked your computer or iPhone to interrupt you? Unless you’ve been intentional with how you configure your notification, it’s probably more than you realize. My phone notifies me every time I pass a Starbucks. It really doesn’t need to. I’ve essentially told my phone that no matter what I’m doing, it can interrupt me with a venti Caramel Apple Spice. (I should turn that off before I forget again…)

    When you get a notification, ask yourself if it really helped you be more productive today. If it did, fantastic. Give the developer a biscotti. (Be prepared to eat it yourself if you can’t find them.) If not, turn off that notification so you never have that interruption again. When you install a new app, push FOMO aside and disable notifications by default. Make it earn the right to interrupt your focus.

  • Quit apps when you aren’t using them. Especially Mail. And Tweetbot. And Facebook. Apps that continually generate new content are the worst. Every email that comes in is another notification that your brain has to make a decision about. Is Frappuccino Happy Hour really what needs your attention right now? Having unused apps updating, chirping, and dinging in the background are at least distracting, if not literally slowing you down.

  • Clear out your email inbox. Leaving all those important emails in your inbox so you don’t lose them isn’t working. You can’t find anything in there. Turn emails into what they are and get them out of your inbox. Put the information you need in your trusted system so you can focus on what you’re doing without scanning through unrelated emails.

  • Clear off your desktop. Your desktop is for working on active projects, not archiving completed projects. Every file you leave there makes your brain have to constantly reassess its importance. Even if you finished that project six months ago, you can’t stop thinking about it. File it or delete it, and clear the clutter off your desktop. Give yourself room to work and space to think.

  • Stop saying yes to everything. You have 168 hours in the week, just like everyone else who isn’t methodically travelling west. You know what’s important to you, and if you don’t guard your 168-ish hours carefully, other people will be happy to fill your time with what’s important to them. If a new request or opportunity isn’t more important than at least one thing currently on your plate, don’t touch it. Learn to say no.

If you don’t know what’s important to you, spend some time drafting a personal mission statement, soon. It will give you a framework for determining how important it is to make room for something in your life. To paraphrase the Cheshire Cat, if you don’t have a vision of who you want to be and the life you want to live, it doesn’t matter what you consider to be important day-to-day.

Once you know what’s important to you, that’s where your time first goes. When you’re planning your week, start with what’s important (and urgent), and go from there. If you give things that aren’t important the same level of attention and focus as the things that are, you’re going to subvert every plan you make and every goal you set. Nothing in your life will have the attention you want to give it.

Question: What could you demote to give something else the importance it deserves? Share your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

About

Colter writes software and blogs about personal growth and productivity. He lives in Silicon Valley (California) with his wife and children, recently took up golf, and watches mostly British TV shows.

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