So, I race cars. No. Scratch that. I compete in the SCCA Solo program. You may have also heard it called “autocross.” It’s a timed, precision-driving motorsport where drivers take turns competing for the fastest time through a course defined by traffic cones on airport runways.
I enjoy it immensely. Some of that enjoyment comes from competition driving being so far removed from my day job. In the brief moments behind the wheel, I have a singular focus and get to check out from everything else. Freedom from distraction is hard to find most days.
One of the fundamentals in learning to drive faster is to keep your eyes up. Keep looking ahead. It sounds like common sense, but it’s one of the toughest things to do: Keep your eyes up. It’s easy to do when a co-driver points out that you’re not looking ahead. But when you’re on course? In the heat of the moment? It’s easy to drop your eyes when you get into that slalom too hot and are suddenly convinced you’re going to hit that first cone.
It must be human nature: Respond to the closest, most immediate threat. That’s okay if your only goal is to simply survive. To live only to face the next threat. It might be okay at a SCCA Championship Tour—if you just want to get through the course.
Now to thrive, that instinct must be changed. You have to get your eyes up. You have to not be looking at the current obstacle, but the next one. Or maybe even the one after that. Why?
You can’t do a damn thing about where you are. But you sure as hell can do something about where you’re going.
That’s how you get competitive. You look ahead. Take the long view. You worry less about where you are and more about where you’re going. While looking ahead it feels like time slows down. You aren’t surprised when you look all the way through that sweeper out to your exit. Maybe to the slalom beyond that.
This idea applies to organizations and projects as well. You have to keep your eyes up. Otherwise, you’ll be caught off guard. Unprepared. Even if there are a million things happening at once—client work, payroll, your inbox, the construction downstairs and so on—none of those immediate obstacles should capture your attention long enough to lose sight of the next thing or your actual goal.
In projects especially, it’s easy to get mired in the task at hand. Keep your head down. Keep working on the little detail that’s got you hung up this morning, the unexpected client feedback that afternoon, or the shiny new application that’s going to make your work easier.
That isn’t to say that you don’t pay attention to the details. On the contrary, you must. Back in the car and on course, you have to pay attention. If you improved the prior segment, that changes your speed into the next. If you made a mistake? You have to let it go. Focus on not compounding the error further into your run. You can’t change what is. And you certainly can’t change what just happened.
For what we do here at Registered Creative, the challenge is to keep that attention for just long enough. What does this piece do in the overall picture? Is it capable of doing that job? How can it do that job better? How much better? If we spend another hour on the button for that website, how much better will it collect that information? What will that “just another hour” cost in the next piece of the project?
Good design isn’t about where something is. It’s about where it’s going and how it all comes together. Get your eyes up.
This gets into another piece of looking ahead: Focus on the important stuff. On an autocross course, there are a lot of cones out there. To get the fastest time you’re capable of, only a few of those cones actually matter. In autocross, we’ve taken to calling them key cones. The rest are simply visual noise.
At work, there’s a lot of noise out in front of you. Figure out the important stuff, and then pay attention to that. I couldn’t reliably guess the key cones of your project or goals. I could take a fair shot at the noise you probably face: Most of your emails, Tweets, Facebook status updates, LinkedIn notifications. Most of that is, readily available, noise. Noise that is just a click, swipe or keystroke away. Enticing noise that pulls your attention from what you really want or need to be doing.
Much like competitive racing, it’s easy to get distracted and forget this fundamental. So this is me, reminding myself: Keep your eyes up. Focus on what matters.
Lots of smart people have written and talked about this stuff. On your way home, listen to this gem from Merlin Mann on time and attention. It’s from 2010, but it still stands. I like this one because he’s been forced to wing it because of technical issues. Fair warning, he speaks quickly. Faster than most people type.