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Don’t Let the Notes Get in the Way of the Music

I went to my grandson’s piano recital last weekend.  He’s just seven (almost eight) and he’s really good for his age.  His part of the recital was only a few minutes, but the entire recital lasted two hours so we listened to a lot of other kids before and after my grandson.

What struck me in listening to all of these kids is how few of them actually produce something that feels like music.  They can put the notes together in a way that sounds like music, but there’s no feeling involved.  Most of them are in the early stages of learning and they’re still focused on getting the notes right.  If they trip over a note, they just back up and play it again, sometimes two or three times.  There is music to enjoy somewhere underneath the notes they’re trying to play, but only a few of the kids actually convey the spirit of the piece they’re playing.

I see the same thing happening in many business organizations — both in IT and outside of IT.  We have a tendency to get so caught up in our day-to-day activities that we (a) stop enjoying what we’re doing and (b) lose track of our overall objectives.  And I think the two things are related: when we lose our focus we lose our enjoyment.

Stephen Covey has written about this problem in his books.  He says that we tend to confuse what’s urgent with what’s important.  The ringing phone is urgent, the boss asking you a question is urgent, but creating a new business process for your company is important.  Turning in a revised budget on time is urgent, filling out a performance appraisal is urgent, but hiring and developing the right employees is important.  Getting a paycheck is urgent, getting a promotion is urgent, but spending time with your family is important.

Things You Can Do to Help Your Focus
It takes conscious effort every minute of every day to focus ourselves on what’s important.  And since we often get distracted, we need to take steps to keep our focus.  Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years:

  • Schedule a small block of time every day or every week.  Explicitly book the time in your calendar so nothing will be scheduled on top of it.  Use the block of time to think about how you can better focus what you’re doing on what’s important.
  • Set a periodic alarm on your PC (here‘s some free software I use) or on your iPhone or PDA or even your watch.  When the alarm goes off, think to yourself, “Is what I was just doing the most important use of my time?”  Do this for a while and you can gradually decrease the frequency of your reminders.
  • Keep a log of how you’re spending your time. Then after a week or so take a look at the log and see if you think you’re spending your time on the most important things.  If you have trouble keeping a log, then combine this with the periodic alarm idea.  Whenever the alarm goes off, write down a few words to say what you were doing since the last alarm.
    Or if you want to simplify this process, make up a log page in advance for each day (Use spreadsheet software, then print it out).  Have each row correspond to the time interval for your log (start with an interval of 15 or 30 minutes), and have each column correspond to a list of common things you do (e.g., talking to customers, generating new ideas, teaching employees, answering email, budgeting, twittering, etc.).  Then when the alarm goes off, put a check mark in the  correct column for the row corresponding to the current time.

The last two items will take some extra effort on your part, but they’re primarily learning exercises.  Once you’ve done the exercises for a few weeks and you have a pretty good idea what you’re doing wrong, you can discontinue those periodic alarms and just schedule daily, weekly or monthly “self-focus sessions” on your calendar.

Life is full of urgent tasks, but to get the most out of our lives we have to focus on what’s important.  In music it’s the feel of the song that’s important — the way it affects your emotions.  Don’t let the notes get in the way of the music, and don’t let the urgent get in the way of the important.

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