The Broken Autopilot

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You’ve been actively doing something — work, a chore, making dinner — and now you’re done. For a moment, the drive of your mind peters out like a small plane engine that has just stalled. The momentum of that task, much like a spinning propeller in front of your face, suddenly flutters and stops with a clunk. What once was the sound of a some-odd-stroke engine buzzing through the skies has been replaced with whistling wind as you begin to feel the loss of altitude in your guts. 

Left with nothing that needs to be immediately done, the need to be mentally stimulated begins to bounce around inside your head like ballpoint pens and paper coffee cups in a now-dropping cockpit. Rather than clutching the headliner of the cockpit in anticipation of impact, you’ve remembered that you have a default safety mechanism for aimless thought — a shining screen.

As soon as you’ve booted up that screen — whether it’s a phone screen, tablet, or television — you can feel your pulse begin to normalize and your palms begin to dry. The engine of your attention turns back over, the propeller sputters to life, and you begin to regain lost altitude. Whoa, that was close. 

After a time, though you’re relieved that you’re not likely to plummet to the earth, you wake up from behind the controls. The auto-pilot had taken over and you’re now headed in the opposite direction. You’ve been down the rabbit hole of social media vanity metrics, social comparison, paparazzi voyeurism, and sensationalist news for a while and are now even further from your destination. Due to your original panic, you left control of your attention to the auto-pilot. Once control was happily handed off, it took you further away from your destination of contentment than had you made an emergency landing once you lost engine power. 

Here’s the interesting thing about where the airplane analogy differs from your attention: there’s not actually any ground below. You could kill the engine, prop your feet up on the instrument panel, and lean back with your fingers gently interlocked behind your closed eyes, and never actually hit anything. The Cessna of your attention span will simply continue to fall toward…nothing — like a flight simulator whose developers forgot to write the code for mountains, oceans, trees, or even firm land.

The plane of our focus will stall out every day, likely hundreds of times a day. And that’s ok. Why? Because there’s no ground beneath that plane.

But if there’s no ground, what’s down there? 

The present moment — that’s all. And it’s really quite nice. And it’s especially nicer than an auto-pilot that is specifically designed to take us away from actually living.


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Living 25 Minutes at a Time

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A little news before we begin: For those of you who prefer to listen rather than read, I’ve started recording audio versions of my articles going forward and reaching back. Also, look for “TheKenLane.com” on your favorite podcast player to subscribe. Thanks! – Ken


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When was the last time you needed to keep your focus on a particular task for more than 30 minutes? 

Sounds agonizing, right? Even as you read this sentence, your mind is likely conjuring up what you could be doing at the same time or what you need to do later. Most of us can’t even enjoy a favorite television show or movie on the couch without also scrolling through social media, news, or emails from a mobile phone, tablet, or laptop. Multitasking, or rather the illusion of it, has trained our brains to constantly seek up-to-the-second stimulation.

But what if you were told you’d be free to multitask to your heart’s content in return for just 25 minutes of focus? Everyone’s got 25 minutes, right?

Why is 25 minutes such an effective length of time for focus?

My fascination with 25-minute spans of focus started with the Pomodoro Technique—a strategy for productivity that could be explained to a 2nd grader. It goes like this:

Focus on a performing single task with intense concentration for 25 minutes, then take a break for 5 minutes in which you can do whatever you want. After you’ve completed four 25-minute concentration sessions, you take a 15-minute break. 25 on, 5 off. 25 on, 5 off. 25 on, 5 off. 25 on, 15 off. Rinse and repeat.

But this piece isn’t about the Pomodoro Technique—I’ve already written about that. What I’m talking about now is the beauty, the simplicity, the elegance, the congeniality of 25 minutes.

We can stand almost anything for 25 minutes.

25 minutes is the maximum amount of time most can focus without approaching the red-line of brain sizzle or scroll-twitch. It’s also just enough time to feel like we’ve accomplished, well, anything. Though we can put dents in a task after 10 or even 5 minutes, 25 minutes is the amount of time that most begin to feel the momentum of our focus and actions. Even if we struggle to initiate an arduous task, after 25 minutes, the sediment in our once-murky waters of focus will begin to settle and we’ll gain immense clarity not possible after a mere 5 or 10 minutes.

Also, when 25 minutes is presented with the promise of 5 or more minutes of aimless reprieve, focus comes easier. Don’t worry—in 25 minutes, you can be back to watching cat videos and checking your social media feeds. Is any reward more appealing than guilt-free time-wasting?

Most things can be segmented into 25-minute blocks.

After a few weeks of using the Pomodoro Technique during my workday, I began to notice how so many of my other daily activities could be segmented into 25-minute blocks. In fact, for most tasks, 25 minutes became their optimum time for focus.

  • 25-minute journaling sessions
  • 25-minute meditations sittings
  • 25-minute workouts
  • 25-minute prayer times
  • 25-minute book-reading periods

Despite all of these being daily habits that I cherish, I’ll admit it — there are times when I don’t want to do them. Maybe I don’t want to sit still that long for meditation or work myself into a panting, sweaty mess with a jump rope. It’s days these that I tell myself, “You don’t have to enjoy this today. All you have to do is put in the 25 minutes. That’s it.” And it doesn’t even have to be the best 25 minutes as long as it’s 25 minutes.

And I remember after all— it’s just 25 minutes.


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Free eBook Download—The Cosmic Mulligan: And Other Ideas on Living a Skosh More Intentionally

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“We write the books we need.”
Unknown

The Cosmic Mulligan is a collection of essays I wrote between May of 2019 and January 2021 on the subject of living with intention—happening to life rather than life happening to you. I didn’t write these chapters because I am an expert on intentional living. On the contrary, I wrote the contents of this book after both researching and soul-searching to scrape together the wisdom I did not possess.

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How to Upload MOBI or PDF Files to Your Kindle Via Email

  • A PDF will work, but you’ll prefer the MOBI file
  • Right-click or hold down the link to download the MOBI or PDF file to your computer or device.
  • Navigate to Amazon, login, and click this Manage Your Content and Devices link
  • Click “Preferences” in the upper middle section between “Devices” and “Privacy Settings”
  • Once on the “Preferences” page, scroll down and click on “Personal Document Settings”
  • Here, you will see “@kindle.com” email addresses for your Kindle-enabled devices. Copy the one corresponding to the device you wish to use.
  • Compose a new email to that address, attaching the downloaded MOBI or PDF files to the email, and send.
  • Open your Kindle device or Kindle app to check to see if the files are there. If they aren’t, you may need to wait a bit while they load.

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Let’s Stop Forcing Things

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This post is the first among my Short & Simple category—short realizations I’m come to almost always while journaling my own problems. 

**************

Rarely in life is force a necessity. Most executions of force eventually backfire.

Force within a relationship strains trust.

Force in the body often leads to injury.

Force within the mind saps the spirit of self-compassion.

What is the alternative remedy? A dismantling of the motivations for what was deemed necessary force. Assessing the reasoning for the failure of an intended outcome should always take precedence over force.

Why isn’t this relationship going the way you want it to?
Maybe it’s not supposed to happen in the way you want.
Maybe there is a lack of trust somewhere that needs to be addressed.

Why am I not losing weight or becoming free of a current ailment?
Maybe your force in this scenario is not in alignment with the long-term health and systemic balance within your body.

Why can’t I focus on the things that matter most in life enough to make time for them? Maybe your default modes of how you spend time have strayed from their optimal positions to sub-optimal behaviors with frictionless gratification.

Forcing any of these will rarely result in anything more than mental, social, or physical hemorrhoids.

My Least Favorite Side Effect of Mindfulness Meditation

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If you were to ask me which skill I’ve developed in the past five years that has been the most beneficial to my daily life, I’d likely interrupt you. 

“What would is the most useful skill you’ve developed in the past five—” 

“—meditation. Definitely meditation.” 

And it’s true. Mindfulness meditation, more than any other technique, coping mechanism, or practice has helped me manage the fidget spinner in my mind. As someone diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and treated (aka heavily medicated with powerful narcotics), I believe that Mindfulness Meditation should be utilized as a treatment for the symptoms of ADHD. Other studies have revealed that Mindfulness Meditation has been proven effective in treating anxiety, heart disease, depression, insomnia, and even reducing the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pain, and psoriasis. Whoa, that’s pretty compelling. 

For all of its benefits, there is one aspect of Mindfulness Meditation that I didn’t initially care for—it perpetually reveals just how scattered my focus truly is. 

Before I started a regular a  Mindfulness Meditation practice, I was comfortably oblivious to my mind’s erratic nature. While I would grow frustrated when my focus was derailed by a fleeting thought or an external distraction, I just thought I needed to slap myself in the face, sharpen my gaze on the task at hand, and white-knuckle my attention into its proper place. This method was not only exhausting but also ineffective. 

My first couple of moments of Mindfulness Meditation revealed what the heck was happening in my mind. I would sit silently, attempting to aim my focus at the raw sensation of my breath entering and exiting my nostrils. As my attention arrived at the present moment alone, a pleasant coziness settled into my mind and body. I was surprised by how delightful this sensation of absolute presentness could feel. Just as I started to think about how pleasant the feeling was, WHAM!!—like a 1960’s Batman jab, a random thought delivered a gut-punch to my serenity. Before I knew it, more thoughts began to roll in like aggressive waves at the beach. Soon, I was stuck in a mental riptide. 

  • “DID I TAKE THE TRASH CAN TO THE CURB?”
  • “MY CAR NEEDS GAS. I MEAN, I GUESS I COULD GO TO THE STORE, BUT NOT MY PARENTS’ HOUSE IN…” 
  • “THESE PANTS FIT ME A LITTLE BIT FUNNY. BUT RETURNING THEM WOULD MEAN…” 
  • “DO I GET ON MY BOSS’ NERVES, BUT THEY’RE TOO NICE TO TELL ME? I MEAN, THAT ‘LOL’ WAS DEFINITELY NOT GENUINE…” 

These thoughts are completely normal for any meditator to experience—even among the most experienced in the world. Actually, one of the most critical exercises in Mindfulness Meditation is becoming “mindful” of these thoughts as their own entities without allowing them to hijack your focus. 

Some meditation teachers instruct their students to treat their thoughts like leaves floating on a stream, letting them float on by without judgment. Others will say to observe them like clouds in the sky, watching them come and go. 

I prefer to look at them like clothes on hangers to move to get to the back of my closet. Sure, I can take them off of the rack to observe them, but I don’t need to put them on in order to sort through them to get to the back of my closet. In the same way, practicing the art of not putting on/engaging with my thoughts helps me see them not as reality but as thoughts hanging on my mind’s clothing rack that I can slide through while leaving them on their hangers. Never before had I ever been able to encounter my thoughts without “putting them on.” For someone with ADHD, being able to do this without medication feels like a superpower. 

So, what’s the problem? Well, now I realize just how unruly my mind is.

I remember letting my mind wander untethered while I was taking a shower. Though I was able to take a shower on autopilot, my thoughts jumped from my family to work to personal fitness to time management to everything in between. As I stepped out of the shower and toweled off, seeing my reflection in the mirror stomped the brakes on the runaway train of my mind and brought it back into the present. Staring myself down with water dripping from my face into the bathroom sink, I couldn’t help but think, “wow, your mind is still a pinball machine, isn’t it?” At that moment, I felt like a doctor had just handed me a diagnosis—” yep, your mind is still all over the place.” 

I’m still not sure what is worse—having a pinball machine for a mind and being gleefully ignorant of it or realizing the mayhem upstairs and being too hard on yourself for it. Then again, thanks to Mindfulness Meditation, I now know that being hard on myself for having such a scattered mind is, itself, a thought that I have taken off its hanger and put on. Realizing that, I can allow myself to take it off and observe it from an objective perspective.  

So, if I were armed with a time machine and what I know about mindfulness, would I go back in time and prevent myself from learning about my own mind—thus limiting my own self-judgemental nature? I’ll admit, I didn’t immediately know the answer to this. 

Being gleefully ignorant of one’s own shortcomings can be quite lovely—like enjoying a party, completely unaware of the toilet paper stuck to your shoe. However, I believe that I wouldn’t change a thing. I would prefer to understand the nature of my mind so I can work to flex my mental muscles of objective, non-judgemental analysis. 

Whether knowing that my mind’s default mode is “scattered” or that I have toilet paper stuck to my shoe, I’d rather know such things so I can pull the toilet paper off of my shoe before I get back to the party.


Related: Enjoy some of my other articles on meditation.

How to Make Self-Improvement Suck Dramatically Less

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They don’t know you, but you know you.

One of the reasons why most lifestyle enhancement plans and products fail is that they were not designed with you in mind. These influencers and plan developers don’t know you. They have no clue about what lifestyle changes would be sustainable for you. They don’t know what activities you hate doing and which you enjoy. But do you know who does know? You do, that’s who! 

What do you enjoy doing?

To design a growth-oriented lifestyle tailored to your specifications, the process itself must be enjoyable—or at the least, potentially enjoyable.

Step 1. Jot Down What You Like to Do

Bring to mind all of the things you currently enjoy doing as well as the activities you once enjoyed—regardless of their positive or negative implications. Physically jotting these down on a piece of paper or typing them into a document may prove to be helpful.

Step 2. Strikethrough the Destructive Habits

Recall or look through these activities and strikethrough all of the activities that are bad for you. These can range from unhealthy habits like smoking or excessive drinking to compulsive social media checking, maintaining toxic relationships, and the like. 

Step 3. Highlight the Activities That Are Good For You

Regardless of how unhealthy your favorite activities are, there are likely a few that aren’t bad for you. Heck, some may even be good for you. There are probably even some that are extremely good for you that you haven’t thought about in decades. Even still, there are likely some activities you enjoy that share an unlikely component with something that is good for you. 

Let’s use some examples to get the wheels turning. 

Activities You Currently Enjoy That Are Good For You

Ok, maybe you’re not a total loaf of soggy bread. Maybe you genuinely enjoy the occasional walk around town. Perhaps you enjoy learning from historical documentaries. Consider the things you do every day that aren’t actively hastening your demise.

Activities You Once Enjoyed But Hadn’t Thought About Since

Did you play sports in high school? Middle school? Elementary school? Did you enjoy writing stories as a kid? How about painting? Have you stopped playing a musical instrument because life got too busy? 

Activities Your Enjoy That Could Correspond to Something Good For You

Do you enjoy sitting still? Look at you—you potential meditator, you. 

Do you tend to doodle during inconsequential meetings? Is that a budding illustrator I see?

What are your personal goals? 

We all have positive goals in life. Maybe you want to achieve and maintain a certain level of fitness. Perhaps you’d like to get more sleep. Maybe you want to become an avid reader. Bring these specific goals to mind and jot them down—the more specific, the better. 

And finally—use your favorite activities as tools in your growth.

Whether you physically wrote down your goals and favorite activities or just have them at the forefront of your mind, begin to draw lines between the two. 

  • Which of your favorite activities can you leverage toward your goals?
  • Which of your past favorite activities could you revisit to aid your progress? 
  • Which of your favorite activities are negatively inhibiting your goals?
  • How can you replace these harmful-yet-enjoyable activities with positive activities you enjoy? 

Stuff You Enjoy + Stuff That’s Good For You = Stuff You Should Do

venn diagram of stuff you enjoy and stuff that is good for you

When you leverage your favorite activities that also happen to align with your goals, you can begin to craft a growth-oriented lifestyle you enjoy. This Venn diagram should summarize the point of this article as well as anything. 

I jump rope because it’s fun. Fitness is a side effect. 

When I was in elementary school in the early-to-mid ‘90s, Jump Rope For Heart was on a crusade to get kids jumping rope. I remember enjoying the experience thoroughly. However, once I moved into middle school, where gym class was optional, I didn’t touch a jump rope again until I was into my 30’s. 

Why did I pick up jump rope again? Was it because I was at my heaviest weight of 235 pounds? Was it because I was researching various forms of exercise and found jump rope to be one of the most underrated forms of cardio? 

Nope. It just looked fun. And it was. 

Beginning again as an easily-winded sack of flab means it wasn’t necessarily easy, but even as an utterly sedentary desk jockey, I enjoyed the challenge. 

Every week, my stamina increased, and my body began to change. I had no specific weight-loss goal in mind, aside from possibly dipping below 200 pounds for the first time in about five years. That happened rather uneventfully because, though the process was challenging, it didn’t suck. I enjoyed pushing myself to my limits and leaving puddles of sweat in my driveway. I would look forward to my next jump rope session with anticipation rather than dread.  

At the time I write this, I jump rope six days a week, regardless of the weather, for 15-30 minutes, striving to keep an average heart rate of above 145 bpm. 

Is it hard some mornings? Yes. 

Is it challenging to push through when I feel like giving up? Definitely. 

Does it suck? Absolutely not. 

Leverage what you consider fun. Lean into what you consider challenging. 

Whether you’re looking to run a faster mile, lose and keep off a certain amount of weight, or develop a useful meditation habit, utilizing the activities you already enjoy will help you not only tolerate the growth process but crave it. When you use enjoyable activities to push your journey towards achievement, you pour rocket fuel on your progress.

The Importance of Determining How Much is Enough & Why

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How are you determining what is enough for you?

Most of us are probably familiar with the “rock bottom” scene from 1979’s comedy classic, “The Jerk.” If you’re not, Steve Martin’s character, Navin Johnson, has lost all of his wealth and his relationship with love interest Maria (played by Bernadette Peters) is on the rocks. In an attempt to prove that he hasn’t quite hit rock bottom, he walks out of his mansion, only taking “all I need.” As he scoots out of the house in his bathrobe, pants around his ankles, he grabs random items as he passes them. Cradling them in his arms, he bellows out that these few items are all he needs.

“The paddle game, and the chair, and the remote control, and the matches, for sure. And this. And that’s all I need. The ashtray, the remote control, the paddle game, this magazine, and the chair.”

What started out as an act of defiance against the universe’s attempt to crush his spirit turns into a hilarious joke about just how dependant on petty materialism he really is. 

The joke is on us.

We laugh at this scene—partially because of its absurdity, but also because of its relevance to our own lives. Not only do we not know how much is enough, but we also don’t know how we should decide how much is enough for our lives. However, determining how much is enough and why is absolutely crucial—not only for the sake of our own contentment but also so we can understand our role as conduits for giving in the world. 

“How much is enough?” vs. “How much can I afford?”

Most of us have never taken the time to really consider what kind of stuff and how much of it is necessary for us to be content. For most of us, the question is answered by “how much can I afford?” Cheaper goods and open lines of credit have made this method of thinking immensely problematic. Suddenly, even once we no longer have enough money to keep our bills paid, we’re still allowed to feel like we don’t have enough stuff to feel satisfied. 

Really, though—how much is enough to make you “happy”?

We’ve been conditioned to always seek out more without really taking the time to assess if accumulating more material goods is really worth the sacrifices we make to attain them. We’re simply never expected to ask ourselves certain contentment-determining “how much is enough” questions. 

“How much (insert item here) is enough?” 

  • How much house is enough?
  • How much car is enough?
  • How much consumer technology is enough?
  • How much wardrobe is enough?
  • etc.

Getting to the Root with “But Why?” 

For anyone who has been in the presence of an inquisitive child, the question of “but why?” may seem annoying, if not maddening. However, asking ourselves “why?” we want anything is an effective practice in cutting away motivations that do not result in a contented spirit. 

  • Why do I need this much house? 
  • Why do I need this much car? 
  • Why do I need this much consumer technology?
  • Why do I need this much of a wardrobe?

Asking “Why?” About Your Whys

To truly chip away at weak motivations, repeatedly and honestly asking “why?” about our answers to “why?” can expose flimsy reasons for wanting certain things.

“XYZ is enough car because I want a modern SUV from a luxury brand.” 

Why?

“Well, because I want my car to reflect my success.” 

Why?

“Appearing successful, even to strangers, is important to me.”

Why?

“Because I need outward affirmation to convince myself that I am successful.” 

Not all “why” roots will be negative truths that require deeply psychological remedies. Some will be legitimate reasons, even if they seem a bit superfluous initially. Eventually, your answer to “why?” may start to become repetitive once it has begun to hit its root and may feel like a semi-compelling argument. While this is possible, it’s important to not attempt to rationalize every superfluous material desire. 

You are a conduit for others. 

Most of us have more than enough. We convince ourselves of the need to upgrade perfectly adequate items. We buy several versions of the same thing that differ slightly in ways only we could ever perceive. We purchase more of something than we could ever consume—from channels to data plans and beyond. Is this really the best use of our excess? 

There are people, believe it or not, who do not have enough. Through unfortunate events or even as a result of systemic oppression, there those who lack even the most basic of essentials. Perhaps one of the most important reasons for determining our levels of “enoughness” is so we can be activated as a conduit for blessing in their lives. By determining what is enough for you, you will be in a more comfortable position to give. Instead of buying yet another version of that thing that still works for you, perhaps consider donating to a food bank, picking up someone’s groceries, or paying the rent for someone who has lost their job.

Once you realize what is enough for you, this is an opportunity to be a blessing for others without enough.

Contentment is a choice.

Happiness is an “inside job.” If we build our joy with the approval of others as its foundation, the moment their attention shifts or wanes, this structure will collapse. That’s why it is imperative that we choose to perpetually cultivate self-sustaining happiness and do our best to avoid conditional “hits” of happiness.

Happiness through material possession is unquenchable.

Happiness through social approval is fickle. 

Happiness through accomplishment is untenable.

Happiness generated via chosen contentment within the present moment is abiding. 

The only truthful answer to “I’ll be happy when…” is “…when I decide to allow myself to be happy.”

Putting Enough Into Practice

Answer the following question about all material possessions you have or feel you need. 

  • What do you feel is enough (house, vehicle, technology, wardrobe, etc.) for you? 

 

  • Why do you feel that this is so?

 

  • Could the resources you’ve invested in this item or service be better utilized for others while leaving you feeling like you have enough? How? 

Don’t Abandon the Tools You Forged in 2020

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Take a look before you close the book. 

Though we’d all love to shelf 2020 (or run it through the shredder), there’s no denying that we all learned a lot about ourselves throughout this year. It would be a shame to call 2020 an absolute waste—especially since it had so many lessons to impart. Yes, most of these lessons are how not to do certain things, but also how to lean into the storm of life to keep it from completely knocking us down. 

For some, the lessons they learned and skills developed were how to cope with physical obstacles—lost jobs, lost homes, lost connections, lost bodily health, and even sadly, the loss of loved ones. For others, the obstacles were more mental and emotional—anxiety, depression, isolation, a lack of motivation. The list is endless.

Despite these obstacles, when carefully studied, we can recall the strategies, remedies, and mindsets we used to endure. 

If the tools and emotional armor we developed worked as well as they did when we squared off directly with the travails of 2020, how much more effective could these approaches prove for positive growth and maintenance during times less fraught with adversity? 

Let’s say you were forced to become more frugal with your finances because a member of your family lost their job. Maybe you can take these newfound budgeting skills beyond when money is coming in to save toward your goals. 

Maybe, to better cope with the anxiety and depression of being away from friends and loved ones, you were forced to seek and cultivate new practices to maintain your mental health. These methods could have included meditation, exercise, therapy, spirituality, or new interests. Though developed under immense pressure, these beneficial coping methods should be treated like precious gems you can continue to keep with you.

Before you close the book on 2020 and abandon it entirely—writing it off as a painful memory— remember the tools you forged to help you make it through the storm. These tools can prove to be invaluable companions that will serve you for the rest of your life.

You Owe It To Yourself to Give Your Craft the Focus It Deserves

Reading Time: 2 minutes


Disclaimer: I mostly wrote this article to myself, but felt that it may be helpful to others.

The Scattered-Focus Life

With information and global networking more attainable than ever, there’s no reason why, with a little focused effort, any of us can’t become world-class specialists in our craft. From graphic designers, developers, writers, videographers, and photographers to business managers, financial professionals, and educators, with the proper focus, we can continue to sharpen our craft every day. But many of us choose not to. Why? Because we prefer the easier, scatterbrained life.

Multi-tasking vs. Fragmented Focus

Yes, listening to a podcast while folding the laundry or watching a TV show while riding a stationary bicycle are both within the realm of what we deem “multi-tasking.” This is due to the limited concentration required for the accompanying task. This being said, one task always has focus over another. The folding of the laundry, the riding of the bicycle—these tasks require virtually no mental bandwidth whatsoever. That means that our primary focus is on the plot of the show or the content of the podcast. And that’s perfectly fine, as long as we’re not fooling ourselves into believing that we can split our focus 50/50 between both activities simultaneously. This is a lie—a lie that we frequently tell ourselves when it comes to pursuing our craft.

Forsaking Focus On Your Craft

When we attempt to use this same logic in our working lives, the same rules apply; one takes the lion’s share of our focus. Though we can listen to repetitive music while we write about complex subjects, we can’t simultaneously watch riveting programming while claiming to provide the necessary attention to our valued specialty. 

Why not? Well, firstly, as much as you claim to be the unique person with the capacity for split focus, you simply can’t. But more importantly, because your craft deserves to be the primary focus of your conscious mind. Your concentration deserves your concentration. 

So, if you hope to sharpen your skills and create meaningful work, sign out of Netflix, close the YouTube browser, turn off the podcast episode, and give your craft what it deserves — the captain’s seat of your focus.

Related Piece: 5 Things I Really Like About the Pomodoro Technique

Get Exclusive: The Digital Alternative to Social Media

Reading Time: 4 minutes


Remember the annual family newsletter?

From about the time I was seven or eight years old, I was in charge of writing my family’s annual holiday newsletter—a job I would put on my resume today if others took it as seriously as I did. 

In this snail-mailed update, the newsletter usually followed a familiar recipe; 

  • greetings intro blurb
  • family update paragraph
  • dad paragraph
  • mom paragraph
  • older brother paragraph
  • my own paragraph
  • a conclusion 

I aimed to keep it short enough to only use the front of one sheet of paper—a practice that I feel has enhanced my editing skills to this day.  

Just as we enjoyed mailing this letter out to far-flung family and friends, we also thoroughly enjoyed receiving others. From November through December, we’d fish one out of a pile on the center of the dining room table to read over the morning’s bowl of cereal or on a lazy weekend afternoon. 

Sadly, after a while, most families stopped putting out annual newsletters. 

What killed them? It wouldn’t be going out on a limb to blame the emergence of social media.

Gone are the days are, “I wonder what the Hendersons are up to.” 

Family milestones are simply “reacted” to with the click of a heart-shaped button and a reheated, “So cute,” “That’s fantastic,” or “Thoughts and prayers.” 

In-person conversations and email correspondences have been reduced to, 

“Yeah, I saw that you had posted about that,” and “I know, I laughed so hard when I saw that post…”

Is it possible that too much digital socialization can leave us feeling even more detached from physical socialization than physical detachment? 

I believe so. And I think there is a better way.

Enter: the personal newsletter. 

The Personal Email Newsletter

It works like this: 

The Gist

  • Those who desire to keep up with one’s life the same way they do on social media only simply need to subscribe to their email newsletter through a free online email subscription tool (more about that in a second). 
  • The author of the newsletter keeps their curated group of friends (not to be confused with acquaintances) updated with a periodic email newsletter.

No Hard Feelings

  • The author can choose to deny subscription requests from anyone they don’t feel close enough to receive their updates—no hard feelings.
  • On the flip side, if any reader decides they don’t want to receive these email updates anymore, they simply unsubscribe—also, no hard feelings.
  • Vanity metrics, such as any open rates or engagement, should be avoided at all costs. These newsletters are about the quality of the connection, not the quantity of the readership.
  • Authors should feel free to keep access to their newsletters exclusive. The higher the quality of your relationships with your readers, the more honest you can be in your newsletters. Remember “Dunbar’s Number” —the theory that our brains can really only juggle a maximum of around 150 relationships. After that, it’s wishful thinking. Your subscriber count will likely be many times less than that, but each connection will be of a higher quality. 
  • Do not subscribe to acquaintances with whom you don’t intend to make closer friends. A subscription is no place for voyeurism. Ask yourself, “If I saw them in person in a bar and I was alone, would I feel ok about asking them to pull up a seat?” If the answer isn’t “absolutely,” don’t subscribe to their newsletter.

The Less Frequent, the Better

  • Authors are encouraged to be as light or as deep as they want. Newsletters can cover just the basics, remain lighthearted, or go into deep issues close to the author’s heart.
  • Feel free to respond to someone’s newsletter to spark a friendly email correspondence. Better yet, save your questions about the nature of their newsletter for an in-person interaction—perhaps over a coffee or a pint. Though covid-conditions make this problematic for the time being, there will come a time when questions about a thought-provoking newsletter should result in a scheduled time to grab a coffee or a drink for an in-person discussion.  
  • Authors should strive to limit how frequently they send these newsletters to reduce the likelihood of inundating the readers’ inboxes. Instead of posting any thought you have, consider compiling your thoughts on a single note on your phone or computer and curating these thoughts into your monthly, seasonally, and even annual newsletter.  

The Tools

  • Do not email a list through your email service. Not only does this expose email addresses to others, but it removes their ability to unsubscribe from your newsletters. Failing to use a newsletter service may result in getting your address flagged as spam or even damaging your relationships.
  • TinyLetter: Though a free email service that follows all of these guidelines to the above specifications does not yet exist, I’ve found that TinyLetter is the closest email newsletter tool for these purposes. Its stripped-down nature lends itself well to personal email newsletters. Its subscription tools allow friends to easily subscribe and unsubscribe as they so choose.
  • The use of mobile note-taking applications greatly aids newsletter development. Instead of feeling the need to post every idea that com es to mind on a social media platform, collecting thoughts in the moment for later posts will result in a higher quality correspondence experience. I prefer Google Keep. Others may like Evernote, OneNote, or Notion. Sometimes, I’ll even journal on a Google Doc kept in Drive on my phone. Whether you use a note-taking app or a paper notebook, the most crucial part is recalling your notes later for future newsletter updates. 

In Conclusion

Moving to a newsletter-based approach to online socialization is meant to use technology as a tool for fostering high-quality friendships, not digital voyeurism or social skimming. While you may not have nearly the number of personal newsletter readers as friends on Facebook, that’s a good thingmost of those people aren’t your friends anyway.

Cheers to cultivating genuine, high-quality friendships.