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The Atomizing Technique: When You Only Have 8 Minutes to Focus

The atomizing technique: when you only have 8 minutes to focus
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This week I made use of a valuable technique that I decided would be worth writing about.

It was a movie night and I still had lots of work to do. I knew I could work after, but I had about 8 minutes of free time, and ideally I wanted to have one less thing to do.

I have been working on rendering the Multihabit app plans in great detail for my developer, but I do this as a small part of my writing work. I try to make a bit of progress on it every day, as I wrote about last week in the tiling method article.

What’s the point of spending 8 minutes when I’m not going to get much done?

This is an objection I’ve seen in many forms. I hear it lots from writers who think there’s no point in working on their story if they don’t have at least 20-30 minutes. Most of us, when we have just 5-10 minutes of free time, will take out our phones and scroll.

But in reality, the time we usually have to get important work done comes at us in small windows of time. You might have a 15 minute coffee break. You might be standing in line for 9 minutes due to a backlog at Starbucks. That coffee break though can be time to work on your book. That lineup can be time to get in some reading.

Small windows like this are prime time for focus, if you can practice a technique I call atomizing.

Here’s how it works, using my example from this week. I’ll apply it to working on a book for some contrast afterward.

For this week’s narrow 8 minutes, I went to my computer and opened the plan for the Multihabit app. I did up a full blueprint of every screen with all the layout and functionality last December, so right now I am going over that blueprint and breaking every screen down into tabs. I am essentially laying out a road-map for my developer so that he will have each build stage in well-defined, unambiguous detail that minimizes hiccups in the process.

Using the tiling method, I bounded this process daily by trying to work through the details of just one screen. Usually I can get this done in 30-40 minutes.

So, what do I do with only 8 minutes?

I atomized this further by asking some critical questions:

Why does it have to be one screen? What’s wrong with smaller milestones within the screen?

This got me started working on the current tab (for the log screen). A lot of my work at this stage involves separating content, and essentially cleaning up a mess that worked great for a full-on presentation of the app blueprint, but is unreadable for a developer.

I realized as I just did what I could in those 8 minutes that actually, every 5-10 seconds or so, I made critical decisions that advanced my goal to get the log screen together. I tried not to think about how much I would get done in those 8 minutes. Instead, I atomized this right down to the decisions I had to make, click-by-click.

I got a lot done, in fact! At the start of the session, I had a jumbled mess. At the end, I had 4 tabs made for what I realized were 4 separate screens. I was not done the log tab, but I had all sorts of loose ends left for me the following day.

And what a great thing too, because the next day, I had longer to work on the app plans and I cleaned up the log screen and moved on to the next ones.

Another way to look at this is:

If I’d not atomized this, I would have sat on the couch and scrolled through Instagram for 8 minutes. But because I atomized it, not only did I make a bit of progress on the app, but after the movie, I didn’t have to worry about getting in that extra task.

Here’s the same principle applied to writing.

There’s a tendency to mystify the writing process. I have found over time, though, that when it comes down to it, the true art is learning to sit in place and focus on the task at hand.

Take this article I’m writing at the moment. I really didn’t want to write this today. I wasn’t in the mood at all when I started. I wanted to put it off until Saturday, or maybe take a break.

Only because I’ve practiced this habit time and time and time again am I here now writing this. When I write, I only think about the few words I am stringing together. I might go back and reword, delete, or move things around. My “atoms” when it comes to writing are words themselves, or occasionally the phrases of sentences.

Well, there goes a whole paragraph already. Yes, it’s nice to see paragraphs finished. Those are great units, but they are more like molecules, not atoms. When I’ve worked on Highbrow courses requiring research, or when I’m dealing with intensive edits, there are times when even with 20 minutes to write, just getting one sentence to the right form is a feat.

So actually, the “atoms” for writing aren’t even words. They could be considered as each thought you commit to the manuscript you have open. Sometimes we need to stop and think, in order to see the forest for the trees — especially with writing.

If you only have your 15 minute coffee break to write, but you train yourself to take your computer out every day and just connect to whatever “atoms” of thought you can, then you might not see the progress daily, but over a period of 1-2 months, you might see 20-30 pages of a book coming together — the book you never would have written if you’d just waited until you had “more time”.

Atomizing helps to break down the mental barriers that often make us put off work that seems to require lots of time. While it’s true that the work — like writing a book, or making an app — does take a long time, atomizing helps to shift your focus away from just one session. Instead, you start to see how the habit of consistent sessions — however small they are — add up to the completion of even a monumental task.

In the story of the tortoise and the hare, this is a prime example of why the tortoise often wins. One small (atomized) step at a time carries him further than the sleepy, unrealistic rabbit who dreams grand dreams while forgetting his footwork.

Stay tuned for next Tuesday, when we’ll explore yet more ideas built around the Multihabit system.