One Thing at a Time

Would you rather have great relationships with people around you and be okay at your job or be great at your job and have okay relationships with people around you? Now obviously there are fallacies in this question: some jobs are relationship based, and these two components are not mutually exclusive.  In the realm of student affairs, we practice and focus on connecting with the person in front of you.  This is something I have practiced: listening and hearing each word chosen, flipping over my phone and turning off the sound, turning off music, and other little tactics.

When I pause to consider the power of a phone buzz or an email alert has over my life, I get a little frustrated.  When in a state of working hard and accomplishing tasks, it only takes one little sound before I am working on something else. I have no problem ignoring messages when talking with another person, but all bets are off when I am working on a project.  After just a couple of buzzes, I suddenly have several tabs open and am working on several projects, accomplishing a lot less than I am capable of.

To take a step back, I am wondering if I am buying into some of the ideas I see on social media, where there is praise for getting to the grind early in the day, and consistent hashtags of productivity.  I am sure I am not free from the influence of measuring success in busyness, though the deliberate practice of working on focusing on one task at a time is helpful in many aspects of life.  Writing papers, researching personal interests, and deliberate practice all require attention and focusing in on one thing.

One of my favorite definitions of meditation includes a note about an awareness of when your mind is drifting, noticing where, and bringing it back to a place you are comfortable with.  Even in writing this blogpost, I have become acutely aware of the distractions which have entered into my mind.  A shortlist includes: putting on lip chap, drinking coffee, wishing co-workers happy birthday, hitting next on a song that is playing, looking at my phone when it buzzes,  organizing my desk, waving to individuals I know who walk past my office window.  Many of these distractions I would never do while speaking one-on-one with a student or another colleague, though when working on a project become part of my practice.

Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi (1975) talks about the concept of flow, which is a state of concentration where one is so involved in a task, nothing else matters.  Flow is experienced when there is high level of skill and a high level of challenge.  Another psychologist, K. Anders Ericcson (1993), discussed the concept of deliberate practice, which helps to achieve a state of flow and intense concentration.   Deliberate practice is taking time to work specifically on a sliver of a skill.  For example, if I wanted to better my calligraphy, I might practice my ampersand or a specific letter until it is at a better place.

Right now I am going to make a commitment to myself and deliberately practice what it means to intentionally zoom in on the work I am doing and be as present with the work I do as with the individuals I sit with.  Here are a couple of ideas which come to mind about reducing distractions I will encounter:

  • Reduce Stimuli for Distraction: This is similar to the idea of out of sight, out of mind. If I am attempting not to eat sweets, it is easier to hide the candy behind a drawer and keep it out of mind, rather than keeping it on the counter.  The ecology of our space matters.  Actionable items would be only keeping the necessities on the top of my desk and hiding toolbars on my computer. This also includes keeping my cell phone on do not disturb and taking a look at my phone on my terms, and not on its terms.
  • The Pomodoro Technique: As made popular by Francesco Cirillo (2006) is a method of appropriately distributing one’s attention.  Essentially, the idea is we do not have unlimited attention spans, and it is better to have set times for work and set times for breaks, instead of letting them rule you.  There is a specific set of guidelines for properly using the Pomodoro Technique, which can be found here.
  • Celebrate Wins: This is one I definitely need to work on – it is the idea of celebrating wins when we have them. I have recently started vocalizing “good job” to myself whenever I have done something well.  For example, when I was thoughtful about an email, or considered something from a different perspective, when I receive an email which says “thank you!”  These are all instances where I give myself a good job.  Now, am I perfect at my job? No, of course not.  Though, are there many tasks I do well each day that I should recognize and see in myself? Of course there are.

These are just three ways I pledge to reduce distractions in my life, and deliberately practice in the upcoming day and in days to follow.  How do you keep focus?  What are the techniques you use? Are you naturally attentive with projects?   How about with others?   How do you feel about the work you are doing – what can you achieve?


Cirillo, Francesco (2006).  The Pomodoro Technique (The Pomodoro).  San Francisco: Creative Commons.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1975). Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. Th., & Tesch-Roemer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100, 363-406.