Streams and Buckets: Focusing When You are Full of Ideas

First, the metaphor:

Email is a bucket–things come into it, and you need to deal with all of them.

Facebook and Twitter are streams – you can dip in and out at your leisure, and there is no way (and no reason) to read all of what gets posted.

Trying to treat a stream like a bucket is like trying to open your mouth and swallow a river. You can only swallow a glassful – so you need to dip your glass in and come out with a human-sized portion of water before partaking.

This stream vs. bucket metaphor can be applied to a lot of things in our lives–in this post I’m applying it to project ideas.

How this has helped me focus

The biggest impediment I have had to being focused is that I have lots of project ideas and am always starting new things. I would jump around so much it was hard to stay with one long enough to produce significant results.

Whenever I would try to “focus” by doing only one thing at a time, it would be like trying to hold back the river – it would soon overpower me. A Shiny Side Project would emerge that would feel more and more like something I really had to do, and soon I would fall off the “focusing” wagon back into the stream.

Lately I’ve been focusing in a new way. Instead of trying to stop up the stream, as if the stream was the problem, I’ve change my relationship with it.

Now I have One Main Project that I’m committed to seeing through. But I don’t work on it exclusively. I just work on it regularly. When I want to be focused, I focus on that. That’s the thing I’m Building. That’s my main squeeze as far as projects go.

But when I’m not feeling the focus–I can do whatever I want. I can dip in the stream, or swim around in it. I’m not creating a damn, I’m letting it flow around me. And the result has been that the inevitable Shiny Side Project doesn’t build up the same kind of pressure. I can look at it, entertain it, feel how much energy I have for it–it’s not off limits. And usually the urge to start something huge and new passes within a day or two.

It’s a bit like meditation–you don’t try to stop your thoughts, you just bring your mind back to your object of focus, like your breathe. If you try to stop your thoughts, you get in a battle. If you allow your thoughts, but gently bring your attention back to your breathe, your thoughts dissipate. The point is not to stop your thoughts, but rather to practice the act of moving your attention to the present moment.

I’ve also stopped trying to collect all my ideas in some kind of task management system. If they are really fabulous ideas about something I’m already doing but that I can’t implement yet, I’ll jot them down. But all the random flights of fancy and business ideas–I let them go. I no longer make buckets to catch them all in. It’s pointless. If it’s that important, the idea will come back, and the time it would take to record, catalog and review all my ideas is just not worth it. I trust that the stream will never dry up, and I can drink whenever I want; there’s no need to stockpile ideas.

Within the One Main Project, I also don’t force myself to focus. I check in regularly with myself with where my energy is at (and if it is not in the project at all, I do something else). Generally I’ll work on one aspect of it for a few days, and then switch to another one, based on my energy. I know at the end I’ll have some loose ends to clean up–but that’s fine, because then I’ll be so close to the finish line I’ll have energy for that sort of thing. Right now, while it’s new and big and overwhelming, it’s important to focus on what is alive for me and keep my motivation tied to that.

The less I force myself, the more energy and willingness I have to be focused. The more I can follow my internal rhythms and create a natural relationship with my work, the more I get done and the happier I am.

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