"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
March 19, 2014
Laser Light and Perfect Days
by Kathryn Grant

The prompting surprised me: “Read that magazine.” Curious, I leafed through my recent issue of User Experience magazine. I saw the story of a designer who realized he’d developed the habit of working in a state he called “Continuous Partial Attention.” He became more creative, productive, and effective after finding ways to increase focus and reduce distraction in his work.1

“Yeah, I definitely need to do that,” I thought wryly. But other concerns soon pushed the idea out of my mind — even while I prayed for help to be more productive, but continued to be frustrated about my lack of progress on key goals.

Not too much later a LinkedIn post by Greg McKeown caught my eye. He wrote about the number 1 time management mistake made by capable people — allowing themselves to be distracted from what really matters to them.

Then a friend shared this clever blog post by a guy who announced his divorce from someone who’s “extremely smart, funny, reliable, and keeps me up to date .... And although she’s always by my side, I can’t help but notice that she is keeping me from spending time with the people who matter most in my life: God, my wife, my family, and my dreams.”

You guessed it: he’s “divorcing” his smartphone because it’s diverting his attention from what’s most important in his life.

Is the repeated message getting your attention like it got mine?

Now, I didn’t feel like I was wasting a lot of time. I kept a to do list; I stayed busy and tried to do things of value. But often as not, they were things that just caught my attention. Then something else would catch my attention and divert me from the first task — a cycle that continued through the day, adding stress to stress as I had to circle back and finish half-completed tasks.

I also found that my motivation for choosing a task from my to do list was often picking something I could finish quickly so I could cross it off. If I realized these tasks were taking time from my true-north goals, I would tell myself, “This will just take a minute....”

But too often I was busy without making much progress. Stephen Covey would have said I spent my time in Quadrant 3 dealing with things that seemed urgent but ultimately did little to move me closer to my goals.

The triple message caused me to reevaluate how I was living my life. The need for change was obvious. I decided to take Greg McKeown’s advice: He recommends that at the end of the day you write down your top six priorities for tomorrow, cross off the bottom 5, and then set aside a 90-minute block of time to work on your top priority.

(He also advises that every time you are about to check email, Facebook, Twitter, or a similar site, you write down what you are about to do it will make you think twice.)

The first day I tried this approach, I was stunned by the difference it made. My email and other non-essential tasks survived just fine without my constant attention. And by the end of the morning, I had made substantial progress on a key goal.

The progress continued as I focused on focusing, along with eliminating unnecessary distractions. In fact, I was somewhat chagrined to look back and see how I’d allowed my mental energy to be diffused and my progress to be slowed as I pursued distractions that were interesting and generally valuable, but which did not move me toward my most important goals. (See “Good, Better, Best” by Elder Dallin H. Oaks.)

I found myself thinking about what the scriptures say regarding focus and distraction. There’s the instructive story of Nehemiah and his people rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. When Sanballat and Geshem tried to divert their attention, Nehemiah answered, “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease?” (Nehemiah 6:3; see also “We Are Doing a Great Work and Cannot Come Down.”)

The Lord also reminds us of our most important focus: “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single to the glory of God, thy whole body shall be full of light.” (Matthew 6:22 JST, footnote b.)

The reference to light is fascinating. In his book Prayers That Bring Miracles, Stephen Bird explains that a standard light bulb “gives off light in all directions and wave-length colors of the light spectrum.... It is too weak to be projected onto the moon, cut through steel, or repair torn tissues in the eye. It is too weak because its energy is dissipated in all directions and with all wavelengths.”

On the other hand, laser light consists of light on just one wavelength. “The laser filters out every lightwave that isn’t traveling in the desired direction and at the desired frequency.” Laser light — focused light — is the light that works miracles like cutting steel or repairing torn tissue (p. 72).

Avoiding distraction doesn’t mean ignoring serendipity or promptings of the Spirit; it doesn’t mean refusing opportunities for service. And of course it doesn’t mean saying no to healthy relaxation and recreation.

But it does mean we choose not to be tossed about by every wind of distraction. It means we don’t give into the cultural norm of instant gratification with up-to-the-minute email or Twitter that costs us in long-term success.

It means we live intentionally with our most important goals in mind. It means we make a plan and follow it, choosing to make exceptions only when we feel it’s the right thing to do and will lead us closer to our most important goals.

If you try to increase your focus on important goals, you’ll probably find, as I did, that it’s a challenge to break the habit of distraction. Do things go perfectly all at once or all the time? Of course not. But we can make focus a habit and eliminate distractedness as, like a laser, we grow “brighter and brighter until the perfect day.” (D&C 50:24.)

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About Kathryn Grant

Kathryn Grant is a user assistance professional with a passion for usability and process improvement. She also loves family history and enjoys the challenge and reward of building her family tree.

As a child, she lived outside the United States for four years because of her father's job. This experience fueled her natural love of words and language, and also taught her to appreciate other cultures.

Kathryn values gratitude, teaching, learning, differences, and unity. She loves looking at star-filled skies, reading mind-stretching books, listening to contemporary Christian music, attending the temple, and eating fresh raspberries.

Kathryn teaches Sunday family history classes at the BYU Family History Library, and presents frequently at family history events. For more information, visit her Family History Learning Resources page

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