Lessons from the Track, pt 1
What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it. – Herbert A. Simon
When I was younger and less concerned about mortality, and more specifically, the effect a high speed motorcycle crash would have on my body, I spent many an occasion riding a motorcycle around a track.
Thinking back on that time, over this and the next few articles, I’ll share some life lessons I learned on the track – lessons I’ve continued to apply while running a business that manufactures complex CNC machined parts for the aerospace industry.
The first motorcycle I ever took out on a track was an old BMW which, because of its large size, I had named “The Ark.” I was on a tight budget at the time and my prefrontal cortex was not yet fully developed, so I’d drive my motorcycle to the track (rather than trailer it) and then drive it home when I was done. This is definitely not something I’d recommend doing since, aside from the fatigue after a day of riding, the process of getting home gets a little tricky if your bike is rendered inoperable during the course of the day.
During one of my track outings on The Ark, I had the opportunity to meet AMA racer Jason Pridmore who was kind enough to take me aside and offer some advice. One of the things I remember him talking about was the importance of economizing attention so you can be present when it matters: in the turns.
Although you can never take your eye off the track, because of how the affect of mistakes are multiplied during turns, it’s absolutely critical they receive your undivided attention.
Running a small business is no different: you can never take your eyes off the road but when it comes to the turns you need to do whatever you can to be focused on the task at hand. Examples of turns in business? How about: a drastic drop/increase in sales, a new ERP system, an expansion to a new facility/city, taking on a new line of business, a merger/acquisition, and adding an expensive salary to overhead, to name a few.
So how do you economize attention while running a small business? Let me share some of the things I learned at the track.
Be present when and where it matters
One of the things I remember Jason talking about was the importance of getting your braking and shifting out of the way before the turn. Think about your day and about how much of it is filled up with busywork that sucks away your focus. Although just like braking and shifting it’s work that (probably) needs to get done, I think it’s important to make sure and develop a practice that ensures it doesn’t interfere with the important stuff.
I do my best work in the mornings; consequently, I’ve had to develop a practice that as much as possible, allows me to save this time for work that I find to be mentally fatiguing. Although I’ll delve into this further in a future blog, what that means for me is
- Pushing other work to the afternoons when I’m not at the top of my game and
- Clearing the decks and planning my next day before I leave work.
Do you do your best work in the morning? If so, I recommend you not squander it on emails, phone calls, and meetings that don’t require your undivided attention. Easier said than done, I get it, but as my grandmother said: every 1000-step journey starts with an “oy.” So, why not start with a small step? Start by blocking off 30 minutes on your calendar for morning focus work and make sure to turn off all sources of your interruptions (e.g., email, phone, etc.) before you begin.
Get a meeting request that lands right in the middle of your most productive time? I’ve talked about meetings in a former series of blogs but if you’ve blocked off time on your calendar for your productive work don’t give it up. Further, if you’re obliged to attend recurring meetings that have been blessed with words such as: “shortage,” “review,” “update,” and “progress,” consider asking if they can be rescheduled for later in the day. I’m not saying these meetings aren’t valuable to you or your organization just that you and your organization will benefit more if you’re using your best time on your most important work.
Give your mind a break
Recognizing that everyone has a finite capacity for focus Jason talked about the importance of using the less critical times on the track to rest your mind. Psychologist Daniel Goleman, best known for his book Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ, shares this sentiment in his book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence:
Tightly focused attention gets fatigued—much like an overworked muscle—when we push to the point of cognitive exhaustion…The antidote to attention fatigue is the same as for the physical kind: take a rest. (via Farnam Street).
When I’m working on a project that demands 100 percent of my attention, depending on the time of day, between 1 to 1.5 hours into my project, I find my effectiveness drops. Even worse, I seem to seek out distractions: emails to answer, fires to put out, conversations to have. The problem with distractions is that in addition to not being restful they have a tendency to take you far off course and out of the game.
Reminds me of a time when my three-year old son was distracted by a flock of pigeons in the middle of his “soccer pup” league game at Himmel Park in Tucson. He had bolted from the group of kids chasing the soccer ball to chase pigeons. The sequence went something like this: run after birds, stop, watch birds relocate; run after birds, stop, watch birds relocate; etc.
As a first-time parent, my assumption was that there would be no “etc.” and that eventually, my son would realize the futility of his quest and simply turn around to rejoin the game in progress. In searching for a link to Himmel Park I found this picture with a caption left by Kim C:
There is a little boy running on the hill. You can see him if you squint.
I’m pretty sure that was my son. Indeed, by the time I caught up to him I didn’t bother trying to get him back into the game time because I knew it was already too late: game over.
Do your projects start with the best of intentions and end with you exhausted and wondering what happened to your day? If that’s the case I recommend that in addition to scheduling time in for focused work that you also
- Schedule in breaks and
- Define exactly what you’re going to allow yourself to do in the break.
Thinking intentionally this way avoids that aimlessness that causes fatigue and lack of productivity.
I walk our facility during breaks. Far from the “sauntering” described by Thoreau in his 1862 essay that appeared in The Atlantic, I find there is nothing that sets me up better for my next round of focused work than getting up out of my chair and moving. To avoid getting too far off course I essentially follow the same route through our facility and usually take my notebook along with me to record anything requiring follow-up. The entire process, which includes a section that leads me outdoors, only takes about 10 minutes but buys me another solid block of focused work.
I’m going to pick this up again next week with a conversation about mindfulness. Until then, I wanted to leave you with the trailer from a new movie about MotoGP racing called Hitting the Apex, narrated by fellow MotoGP aficionado Brad Pitt. Whether or not you appreciate motorcycles or motorcycle racing consider taking some time (during a scheduled break of course) to take a look. This quote from Brad Pitt explains why:
It’s just phenomenal. These guys are so poetic and beautiful, and yet they’re on the edge of complete and utter destruction. And it’s that line they have to negotiate the whole way. It’s incredible, incredible, incredible. (Source)
I couldn’t agree more. Indeed, a single race has more excitement than most forms of racing do in an entire season. The technology that goes into the bikes is awesome; and, because the races are (usually) every other week, only 45 minutes long, and available online (via subscription) it’s the perfect race series for busy lives.
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