Roo Williams

Habits + Focus

My school reports always read the same; a variation of:

"Andrew is a bright lad but he's very distracting to himself and others"

In the classroom, mine was the single table and chair in the corner, away from the group tables shared by others. Anyone that has a conversation with me will have noticed I often tend to spin up multiple topic threads and jump between them, all while my eyes dart from one thing to another in the periphery as we talk. I could be having the most intense argument with my wife and while doing my best to hear her out and maintain eye contact but I have noticed a household problem that needs fixing in the background and my brain has left the conversation to design a fix. I always have multiple books on the go and rarely finish one, an impressive back-catalogue of half-started projects and when writing with a pen it's like my brain races ahead and I'll write the "followign" letter of a word, or a letter 3 places ahead instead of the correct one.

WTF!

Like many others, I have always struggled to focus and remain focused on one thing. I have read "Getting Things Done", tried "The Pomodoro Technique" and even made my thesis project at university all about staying focused while working from home.1

I just cannot stick at anything.

I have joked that if I'd been born a couple of millenniums prior then this behavior would have actually been great skills for a hunter/gatherer/survivor but alas, I am not a caveman. In the modern world being unfocused has gotten me in trouble, made connecting socially with others, at times, difficult and inhibited fulfillment of my creative pursuits.

But it's not all bad! This trait does offer some benefits. I have built a generalist skillset where I know a bit about a lot because I am addicted to learning. I'm ahead of the curve with my knowledge of technology because I'm always looking for the new and what next. It has been acknowledged that I am very observant, able to spot problems quickly and respond quickly with solutions without having to draw on others. This all evidences why I've had some unique, enviable and very rare work positions designing and building prototypes to help companies innovate.

I CAN Focus

My last place of work was Twitter and while there I felt I was getting a handle on maintaining concentration. Timelines were short, final and I was working with a great team. I was finally able to complete projects that took longer than a day, and began to master the art of finishing the last 10% with the same energy I had for the first.

Why? Planning.

90% of my work at Twitter involved collaborating with people remotely. I had a vision of what I would build in response to a brief but to get buy-in from my managers and enable others to collaborate I needed to communicate that vision and the steps I would complete to execute on it. This involved breaking a project down into smaller tasks and mapping them out chronologically. From there I could assign tasks to collaborators and anyone involved in the project could quickly get a read on its progress. The satisfaction of starting a task, finishing it and knowing the vision was one step closer to being a reality as a result gave me the motivation to continue each day.

This productivity habit was immensely rewarding. My managers were happy, I had fun working with my collaborators and I felt proud of what I was doing.

Habits work much the same as a muscle: the more you work them, the more they develop and become capable of heavier lifts. The key to progress is repetition.

I have had many productive periods like this in my life but I have fallen "off the wagon" more times than I hate to admit.

Misguided Focus

2019 was a wild ride of extreme highs and extreme lows, and after suddenly leaving my role at Twitter due to visa complications and eventually settling here in Portland I found myself a little lost and desperately searching for a way to create something of value. I had been helping my mother-in-law set up ecommerce for her gallery business (Gallery at Home) which immediately paid off when we received 2 orders within the first week! Being close to what seemed like an immediate success got me thinking... I have always loved creating things and experimenting aesthetically so maybe I too could create and sell artwork?

I thought pursuing art full-time would allow me to work with my creative whims in a way that was productive. It was a liberating thought and I got super excited. I spoke to friends, met other local artists and on my wife's advice worked to creating a strategy for making it real.

On the practical side I made some small 'pieces', in various mediums and hoped that by creating every day the work would begin to speak to me and tell me how to progress. After this period of immersion into that world I began to realize that going that route meant abandoning a lot of what I had been good at and starting again.

One of the art pieces I made

Another piece

Reality check: I have never worked as an artist! I felt unsure about the smaller questions of what medium to use and was so far away from finding an 'artistic voice'. How long before I would be able to convert that practice into a means of making a decent living? Sheepishly I began to back away from the idea and take stock.

Reset

Over the span of my working career I have developed some niche skills that are pretty desirable in our current age. I have a lot of experience in generating ideas to solve design and business problems. I enjoy that A LOT! I invested years in learning to write code and build things digitally. By starting again I was moving away from doing things I already know how to do, that give me a lot of satisfaction and I was increasing the distance between me and my goal of reaching financial freedom with "a venture that can generate a steady and substantial income".

So, recently I made the decision to apply a little planning to my life also. I took the time to make a distinction between what would be my profession vs what would be hobbies.

I will now be focusing on using my product design skills to build a business. Rather than bouncing between different expressions of creative output I will find a struggle people have in their life that people will be so glad to have solved they would be willing to pay me for it. I can still tap into what I truly believe in this way and it will leverage my unique skillset and give me the opportunity to learn more.

I still enjoy aesthetic exploration and will continue to 'play' artistically. When not working on my profession I will only focus on generative art using Processing since it's a nice fusion of aesthetics, code and systems, interactive experiments and installations using Arduino, graphic design or outdoor activities.

Maintaining Habits

I have recently begun (and will finish) reading Atomic Habits by James Clear. The main points being that you should aim to create and maintain small, incremental habits that will compound up into making you who you want to be. I am using Things app to help me stick to a morning routine and 3 things I set out to achieve before 6pm. I have mapped the week against work and hobbies and I am making a conscious effort to plan before diving into the parts of a project I like most.

I'm driving the wagon.


  1. my thesis project was even submitted unfinished but still got me a first which I believe was due to my early adoption and incorporation of Arduino - something my tutors hadn't seen before.

About

British maker of physical and digital things living in Portland, Oregon.
London and New York previously.
Creating digital products. Site continually WIP.