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The Key to Happiness: Focus on One Thing

I’ve always thought that free time was the best thing in the world. What could be better than staying at an all-inclusive resort and sipping margaritas with nothing to do? But free time can be painful if it’s in the wrong context. Don’t believe me? Think about your last trip on an elevator.

Is there anything more annoying than waiting for an elevator at work? You don’t have anything to do. You have this empty (read free) time in limbo between your last meeting and your next one. It takes forever to come and you can’t just start a conversation with the person next to you. So you just wait in agony.

After World War II, workers complained about their elevators. Engineers were frantically trying to make them faster but it was difficult and expensive. Then some clever designers realized that adding mirrors next to the elevators would distract the passengers. Complaints significantly dropped. This took waiting for the elevator from being a bad experience to a slightly pleasurable one, but we can do better.

A few years ago I found out how to make waiting for the elevator into a great experience. Instead of thinking about the elevator ride as dead time between meetings, I thought about it as having 1 whole minute to myself. I found a timer called One Moment Meditation. It’s a simple app that helps you meditate for just one minute—which is a lot longer than you’d think.(1)When meditating for just one minute, I’ve often that my timer broke because it couldn’t possibly be that long. At my office, it would take about a minute to go from my office to the lobby. So at lunchtime, I would open the app and use that minute as a break where I could escape into my own little world and leave the elevator refreshed.

So what’s the difference between being annoyed waiting for the elevator and giving yourself a one minute vacation in the middle of the day? It’s all about focusing on one thing. Without that, you’re always thinking about what came before and what could happen next. You’re never in the moment. It’s like this New Yorker cartoon.

It’s tempting to try to combine tasks. If doing one task is good, doing three should be better! But it’s important to give each task its own space. It makes me think about the different types of coffee. Some days I like iced coffee because makes helps cool me down. Other days I like hot coffee because it makes me feel warm inside and wakes me up in the morning. But compromise is not useful here. There’s never been a day when I woke up in the morning and said, “I’d really like a big cup of lukewarm coffee.”

It’s easy to mix things during the day. If you look at an 8 hour day as one chunk of time, things tend to merge. I’ve found that segmenting the day into chunks of time, it’s far easier to make progress. My favorite tool for this is the Pomodoro.(2)The New York Times also had a nice article on Pomodoros called This Time-Management Trick Changed My Whole Relationship With Time. The Pomodoro was created by an Italian who used a tomato-shaped timer.(3)Pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato. It’s simple but surprisingly effective. You split up a large chunk of time into 25 minutes of work with five minutes of rest in between. 25 minutes doesn’t seem that long and helps you stay focused on your work. The five-minute breaks give you a rest and help break up the monotony.

The best example of how do use timers is from my friend Marc. Marc and I have been friends since summer camp and we meet up pretty regularly. The last few times we went to lunch, Marc sat down and he set a timer on his phone. He said to me, “I hope you don’t mind that I’m doing this but I want to really pay attention to you. I don’t want to have to check my watch and be worried about how much time I’m spending here. If I set a timer I can give you my full attention and then I don’t have to worry about checking my watch.” This free’s him up to focus on one thing, ME! And that makes both of us happy.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. When meditating for just one minute, I’ve often that my timer broke because it couldn’t possibly be that long.
2. The New York Times also had a nice article on Pomodoros called This Time-Management Trick Changed My Whole Relationship With Time.
3. Pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato