2-Day Blocks of Focus Now Within Reach

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 03/21/2009

OK, my first hurdle to overcome on my way to success is how to focus. I’ve learned in stunningly clear ways over the years that I’m one of those folks who needs total and complete silence to focus. This is terribly unfortunate, because I have never made a closed-door office a condition of my employ, and the last time I had one was 2004. I think the movement towards open offices, although helpful for achieving openness and transparency, is consistent with the multi-tasking, channel-flipping, email-answering, over-stimulating mass media that gives everyone attention deficit disorder. Although the world is turning my way technologically and philosophically, it’s turning against me with workplace condition trends.

Since 2004 when I came to New York, it’s been either cubicles or completely open workspaces, and there is anger and frustration that boils inside me over being relegated to being “average”. Now to become something bigger than you are, you have to do something noteworthy. The fact that I hadn’t (to speak of) was clear to me when I was a vice president at Connors Communications, a public relations firm that I was brought onboard to help tackle the online space. They wanted me to talk at events, but i was like “who am I that anyone would want to listen to me?” I needed to get something big and splashy under my belt that people have heard of. So I took one of my best percolating ideas–a real-time search hit report jiggered into a blog writing-suggestion-engine for search engine optimization and put it in front of the bosses. They liked it, and I told them a condition of doing it was going to be working on it from home, and so I did, and I finally had acheived something noteworthy.

My theory panned out. Now it’s pretty easy to pitch conferences on me as the creator of the popular long-tail keyword marketing tool. It’s been going strong since August 2006, through a public beta and the transition to a pay-service without losing users. In fact, it’s still gaining users at a faster rate than it’s losing users, and as a pay-service that’s pretty remarkable especially in the current economic conditions. HitTail’s best act is still ahead of it, but that’s a story for another time. For now, the fact is that my theories were justified on two fronts. First, with focus I can achieve great things. Second, that by “doing something” you suddenly have credibility and it opens the door to other opportunities. So that’s where I am today–someone who knows exactly HOW I can achieve, but who only has one Friday a week to cram it all into, and that’s hardly enough time to take a deep breath after a week of agency-life where everything falls into the important-and-urgent category, and nothing from the important-but-not-urgent category gets done.

So the first steps to stealing back time to concentrate within the current life parameters are figuring out the big “day-blocks” of time where I can focus single-mindedly and in silence on my work. The next is, because it’s likely to be a maximum of 2-days a week, how to keep the momentum going between these day-blocks. Well, it seems that my focus time will be Friday, plus either Saturday or Sunday. This will give me a 2-day block, which is enough time to take a deep breath AND get something done. This may sound strange to non-programmers, but the fact is that even though you have a full 8, 12 or 20 hours to work on something straight-through, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get into the zone right away. You need to think through issues and problems, and really internalize what you’re doing, so you can tackle a problem with a sort of automatic mastery that doesn’t come with the first sitting.

With the 2-day-block issue solved, the next issue is workspace. I started out living alone for like 15 years of my adult life, and that was amazing. Why wasn’t I staggeringly successful then? Because my work, as amazing as I believe it was (and still do), was lost in the abyss of a company that didn’t really get what I was doing. They benefitted big-time, but never “got it”. It was also against the backdrop of my father passing, my mother literally going crazy with me attempting to “save” her (something no one can really do), and several resource-draining failed relationships. I also never had a really good mentor until the white knight named Gerard Bucas came along and continued my good work, but by that time I was so war-weary with political arrows in my back that when the NYC opportunity came along, I took it.

Long story short, I ended up living with 2 cats, a TV and my wife-to-be in a studio apartment and for the first time in my life, I lost a job (Hachette Filipacchi Media digital division). I needed focus AND lower living expenses, so I moved to the ‘hood in Inwood (upstate Mahattan) and still didn’t solve the focus problem. Then, I got a good job, moved to a bigger 2-bedroom outside the ‘hood, set up a husband/wife office–which while great in principle, is no better than a cubicle. With panic starting to set in that I will never acheive anything greater than the mediocrity dealt to me by circumstances and my inability to take control, I kicked Rachel out of the 2-person office on those occasions where I need full-time focus. That’s exactly what I’m doing now to do this writing.

Now, why all the writing, you may ask? That’s going to be the subject of my next post. This is the thinking and planning that goes into making the actual time coding more effective. There’s little more counter-productive than sitting down in front of a text-editor, and saying “now what?” I need a crystal-clear vision of what I’m trying to do and why. I actually have so much writing built up over my life, that it will cost $300 to scan and have the paper notebooks going back to 1988 put in digital format. In 2008, I had kept notebooks (on-and-off) for 20 years. The number symbolism is all around me. I’m turning 40. I have 20 years of notebooks. This is the time when I make my move to achieve exellence in life, or forget it.

And to grab for that brass ring, you have to be somewhat mercilious in your dealings. I try to be kind, but it’s tough to tell your wife that you need the office door closed, and each interruption is at least 20 minutes lost. An interruption every half-hour means no work at all will actually be accomplished. And that’s actually the situation at work, and imagine telling your bosses that you want to be held to a different standard to your peers. Without these Friday’s, I would have really only been any good to anyone for another 6 months, until I lost my edge and was only talking the talk without any recent walking the walk to back it up.

So with 2-day blocks of focus now within reach, I have to continue the momentum in between. That will be a matter of constant writing and blogging. Hopefully, I will build up some audience in the meantime. It will likely be a really really really small audience. But the audience isn’t the point so much as how it affects my own behavior. As I point out frequently, I’m employing Robert Cialdini’s first and perhaps most powerful principle of influence: committment and consistency. I’ll let you read his book for the whole low-down (everyone should), but in short, if you write something down and put it out there in public in a way where you really believe others are going to read it and judge you by how you stick-to-it, then your liklihood of sticking to it goes up. It’s like signing a petition.

So in between my precious 2-day work blocks, I will be blogging continually. Sometimes it will go unpublished, because a lot of my thoughts are competitive in nature. Sometimes it will be blog posts like this. Sometimes it will be Tweets and Facebook status updates. The details of all this are the subject of my next post about idea capture and how to actually spending time doing the right things.