In the days and weeks that followed September 11, 2001, the firemen of lower Manhattan had utility bills to pay. They were called by telemarketers. They came home to leaky faucets. They were jabbed by all the usual derailments of modern life.
It didn’t matter, though, because they had The Pile. Ground Zero was the only thing in sight.
Few things inspire focus like tragedy.
I've often wondered if there's a practical way to simulate the positive effects of tragedy, but I really doubt there is. The API for this primal programming is probably closed.
It’s perhaps constructive, though, to consider why people act so efficiently and resolutely amid crisis. My theory: life gets simpler.
The complement of focus
Most people probably think of focus as uni-tasking, or the act of singling out one thing. That’s true. But equivalently, focus is about ignoring the other 99.9 percent that doesn’t matter.
In times of crisis the unimportant goes out of focus naturally.
During times of tranquility and non-urgency, it’s much harder to work through a wide aperture lens. Focus is hard when ignoring is hard. When fear isn’t present to make the unimportant melt to bokeh, your attention naturally becomes spread over many things.
Absent tragedy, we need some other primal motivation to make us ignore. The best I’ve come up with is procrastination, a demon that can actually work for you if you outsmart it.
Channeling procrastination in OmniFocus
I get a lot more done in OmniFocus the less I see in OmniFocus—i.e. the more I ignore. I wish I didn’t need to hide priorities 2–8 from myself so that I can focus on priority 1. I wish it didn’t matter when I see more than I need to see. But it does.
I’ve found that loose start dates are the best tool in OmniFocus for ignoring. If I have a context that shows more than a couple of tasks, I’ll move everything to tomorrow except for what I want to work on next.
It’s an affirmation of the common sense fact that I can’t focus on any one thing until I first choose to ignore everything else.
Procrastinating on low(er) priorities doesn't elicit the same level of productivity as crisis. But it’s as close to tragedy as I can get. Here’s to wishing carefully.