Tag: Focus

Focusing is an Art, Not a Science

Productivity is all the rage. People want to get more done in less time. Productivity systems abound: Getting Things Done, Pomodoro, the Seinfeld thing, etc. There’s certainly something to be said for each of them.

But have you thought about something a little simpler and more basic: How to focus? Like, really how to focus your mind on one hard, long project until it’s done?

Productivity systems are great in that they keep you accountable for getting lots of task-oriented work completed. But they don’t answer the larger question, which is: What do you do that creates value in your career? And more than that, what are you doing that’s going to have a cumulative effect, that’s really going to matter years down the road?

I see these two concepts as intertwined and incredibly important, and ignored by overly task-oriented productivity methods.

The first is figuring out where you’re going to create a massive amount of value in your career, The second is figuring out how you’re going to carve out the time and energy to focus deeply on the first.

The thing is, that type of work — whether it’s building a new product, writing a book, learning a hard subject, building a keynote speech, writing a complicated piece of software, whatever — doesn’t happen by saying “I’ll get to it”, and then allocating 15 minutes here or there in between checking your email and going to meetings.

It happens by stringing together sessions of deep, focused effort. Hours at a time, over and over. The intense kind where you sort of lose yourself and wake up later with a lot of awesome work done.

Learning how to do that kind of work, I think, is something of an art.

I say “art” for a reason. I see a lot of people out there promoting their “science-based” system for getting a lot done. Let me tell you something: The word science is being used to fool you and trick you. To make you salivate, Pavlov-style. “Science” is not some monolith that tells you how to create really meaningful work. There’s no “science” of success. There’s no “science” of productivity. That’s pure charlatanism.

Doing great work is an art. A group of researchers can’t answer the complex question of how to live and work correctly; the real world is too varied. We don’t live in a controlled experiment and we’re not lab rats, or worse, college students in psych labs.

Some scientific research papers can certainly give you hints on how the mind works, sure. They might even tell you a few things about information retention and task-based memory. I can see how that might be useful.

But that’s a long way away from creating a career you care about, where you regularly do focused, meaningful work that feels satisfying. Your life is not the one measured in the labs: You’re not trying to memorize flashcards or strings of numbers; what I’m talking about cannot be boiled down to rigorous science. (And anyone who reads Farnam Street knows the deep respect I have for real science.)

No — it’s art! Or more properly, artisanship. And the essence of being an artisan is that it’s deeply personal: It has to speak to you. You must be willing to put your soul into the game. This means everyone will go about the Art of Focus in their own way. It takes experimentation, dedication, and an understanding that no one can do it for you.

I even called a course I put together The Art of Focus, for this very reason. I don’t claim to have all the answers, or to “scientifically” solve your problems or fix your brain, like you’re a mouse in a lab. I just wanted to give people all of the tips and tricks I knew about doing focused, meaningful work, so they could build a system themselves.

Because the truth of the matter is that, however you go about it, you do need to build your capacity for hard, focused work. That is vital in an age of complexity, where we need to carve out a niche. Most of us aren’t making widgets anymore, and much of that work is being replaced by machines anyways.

And if you’ll let me be controversial for a second, I think that’s a good thing for humanity. Humans aren’t meant to live on a factory assembly line (or the white-collar equivalent – spreadsheets and Powerpoint). We’re meant to lose ourselves in valuable and satisfying work that smacks of originality and humanity.

I know a lot of finance people who want to switch into some related craftsmanship, or writing, or software-building, but not the other way around. Do you know any woodworkers who want to switch into finance? Do you know any writers who want to switch into corporate accounting? Me neither.

But in order to build an awesome career doing hard but satisfying long-term work, you need to build your ability to focus for hours at a time. You need to learn hard skills. You need to let go of multitasking, distraction, and the temptation to be “busy.”

I built the Art of Focus to get people started on that path, but I recommend doing it any way you feel comfortable. With apologies to Phil Knight, just do it.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats

A friend of mine has made the argument to me that you learn as much from fiction as you do from non-fiction.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats supports that argument because it relates to things I've covered.

On attention and the focused life:

You must attend to every movement and every breath. As soon as I become careless or let my mind wander, my senses lead me astray. They play tricks on me like ill-mannered children looking for attention. Whenever I am impatient, for example, I want everything to happen more quickly. My movements become hasty. I spill the tea or the bowl of soup. I don't hear properly what others say because I am already elsewhere in my thoughts.

In praise of slowness:

She was mystified by people who were always hurrying things along. A time of waiting offered moments, minutes, sometimes even hours of peace, of rest, during which, as a rule, she was alone with herself. And she needed these breaks to prepare herself for anything new, for any kind of change.

On psychology and mental models:

Because we only see what we already know. We project our own capacities – for good as well as evil – onto the other person. Then we acknowledge as love primarily those things that correspond to our own image thereof. We wish to be loved as we ourselves would love. Any other way makes us uncomfortable. We respond with doubt and suspicion. We misinterpret the signs. We do not understand the language.

The Science of Improving Your Performance at Almost Anything

Here are some easy tips, which I elaborate on later, to improve your performance at almost anything.

  1. How you practice makes a big difference. You need to think about feedback loops, deliberate practice, and working in chunks.
  2. The mindset between top performers and amateurs is different.
  3. Sleep is incredibly important.
  4. There is a difference between hard and soft skills.
  5. Leverage tempo, focus, and routines to work for you not against you.
  6. Move creative time to the morning.
  7. Make sure you have time for rest.
  8. If you want to think, take a walk.

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Improving our performance is something we all seek to do. Given that we spend a lot of time doing things that we never get better at, I thought I'd share my “developing world class performance” file with you.

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Joshua Foer writes:

Amateur musicians … tend to spend their practice time playing music, whereas pros tend to work through tedious exercises or focus on difficult parts of pieces.

There is so much to how we practice and who we practice against:

Skill improvement is likely to be minimized when facing substantially inferior opponents, because such opponents will not challenge one to exert maximal or even near-maximal effort when making tactical decisions, and problems or weaknesses in one’s play are unlikely to be exploited. At the same time, the opportunity for learning is also attenuated during matches against much stronger opponents, because no amount of effort or concentration is likely to result in a positive outcome. (source)

Feedback loops in practice play an incredibly important role, which explains why we tend to stop getting better at things at work. In Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, Geoff Colvin writes:

You can work on technique all you like, but if you can’t see the effects, two things will happen: You won’t get any better, and you’ll stop caring.

You should work in chunks or pulses (and don't multi-task) Deliberate practice should be so hard that you can only sustain it for a relatively short amount of time.

From Talent is Overrated:

The work is so great that it seems no one can sustain it for very long. A finding that is remarkably consistent across disciplines is that four or five hours a day seems to be the upper limit of deliberate practice, and this is frequently accomplished in sessions lasting no more than an hour to ninety minutes.

When practicing and playing there is a different mindset between average and top performers.

From Talent is Overrated:

Average performers believe their errors were caused by factors outside their control: My opponent got lucky; the task was too hard; I just don’t have the natural ability for this. Top performers, by contrast, believe they are responsible for their errors. Note that this is not just a difference of personality or attitude. Recall that the best performers have set highly specific, technique-based goals and strategies for themselves; they have thought through exactly how they intend to achieve what they want. So when something doesn’t work, they can relate the failure to specific elements of their performance that may have misfired.

Aside from practice, sleep is the next most important thing.

In Anders Ericsson’s famous study of violinists, the top performers slept an average of 8 hours out of every 24, including a 20 to 30 minute mid-afternoon nap, some 2 hours a day more than the average American.

The top violinists also reported that except for practice itself, sleep was the second most important factor in improving as violinists. (source)

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So all of that is great for technical skills (like chess and music) but how can we develop the softer skills?

Speed things up. The way that Brazil develops its soccer players is fascinating. They use a game called futebol de salão, which creates a laboratory of improvisation.

From The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills:

This insanely fast, tightly compressed five-on-five version of the game— played on a field the size of a basketball court— creates 600 percent more touches, demands instant pattern recognition and, in the words of Emilio Miranda, a professor of soccer at the University of São Paulo, serves as Brazil’s “laboratory of improvisation.”

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We can also improve our writing.

Ben Franklin intuitively grasped the concept of deliberate practice. As a teenager Ben received a letter from his father saying his writing was inferior: “in elegance of expression, in method and in perspicuity, of which he convinced me by several instances,” as Franklin recalled.

From Talent is Overrated:

Ben responded to his father’s observations in several ways. First, he found examples of prose clearly superior to anything he could produce, a bound volume of the Spectator, the great English periodical written by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Any of us might have done something similar. But Franklin then embarked on a remarkable program that few of us would have ever thought of.

It began with his reading a Spectator article and marking brief notes on the meaning of each sentence; a few days later he would take up the notes and try to express the meaning of each sentence in his own words. When done, he compared his essay with the original, “discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.

One of the faults he noticed was his poor vocabulary. What could he do about that? He realized that writing poetry required an extensive “stock of words” because he might need to express any given meaning in many different ways depending on the demands of rhyme or meter. So he would rewrite Spectator essays in verse. …

Franklin realized also that a key element of a good essay is its organization, so he developed a method to work on that. He would again make short notes on each sentence in an essay, but would write each note on a separate slip of paper. He would then mix up the notes and set them aside for weeks, until he had forgotten the essay. At that point he would try to put the notes in their correct order, attempt to write the essay, and then compare it with the original; again, he “discovered many faults and amended them.”

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Here is a subsection I call the science of everyday performance.

To do our best work we need to focus.

From Your Brain At Work — Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long:

One of the most effective distraction-management techniques is simple: switch off all communication devices during any thinking work. Your brain prefers to focus on things right in front of you. It takes less effort. If you are trying to focus on a subtle mental thread, allowing yourself to be distracted is like stopping pain to enjoy a mild pleasure: it’s too hard to resist! Blocking out external distractions altogether, especially if you get a lot of them, seems to be one of the best strategies for improving mental performance.

We all need routines or rituals, in part to make sure our decision-making energy goes toward the hard things, not what we're ordering at Starbucks.

From Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career:

A ritual is a highly precise behavior you do at a specific time so that it becomes automatic over time and no longer requires much conscious intention or energy.

The energy saved from routines and rituals gives us more energy to make better decisions. Some companies, like Google,  take this very seriously.

From Your Brain At Work:

The formula at Club Med is to include pretty much everything in the price, activities, food, even drinks, giving you fewer decisions to make. Now I know the research on decision making, and how making any conscious decision uses a measurable amount of glucose, but I wasn’t prepared for how relaxing it was not having to think anywhere near as much, even about simple things. It turned out to be a remarkably restful holiday.

When you work at google, you get to save your limited mental resources for the most important decisions. As Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt said, “Let’s face it: programmers want to program, they don’t want to do their laundry. So we make it easy for them to do both.”

Mark McGuinness argues that you should move your creative or mentally intensive work to the start of your day.

From Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind:

The single most important change you can make in your working habits is to switch to creative work first, reactive work second. This means blocking off a large chunk of time every day for creative work on your own priorities, with the phone and e-mail off.

We also shouldn't forget the importance of leisure. This, in addition to health benefits, makes us more creative.

From Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing:

What comes into your consciousness when you are idle can often be reports from the depths of your unconscious self— and this information may not always be pleasant. Nonetheless, your brain is likely bringing it to your attention for a good reason. Through idleness, great ideas buried in your unconsciousness have the chance to enter your awareness.

Oh, and you should exercise

From Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving At Work, Home, and School:

Just about every mental test possible was tried. No matter how it was measured, the answer was consistently yes: A lifetime of exercise can result in a sometimes astonishing elevation in cognitive performance, compared with those who are sedentary. Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material in order to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work.

Some philosophers walked to think and others walked to escape. Kant combined walking and habit.

From A Philosophy of Walking:

Like Nietzsche — although with different emphasis — (Kant) was concerned with only two things apart from reading and writing: the importance of his walk, and what he should eat. But their styles differed absolutely. Nietzsche was a great, indefatigable walker, whose hikes were long and sometimes steep; and he usually ate sparingly, like a hermit, always trying out diets, seeking what would least upset his delicate stomach.

Kant by contrast had a good appetite, drank heartily, although not to excess, and spent long hours at the table. But he looked after himself during his daily walk which was always very brief, a bit perfunctory. He couldn’t bear to perspire. So in summer he would walk very slowly, and stop in the shade when he began to overheat.

The Ability To Focus And Make The Best Move When There Are No Good Moves

"The indeterminate future is somehow one in which probability and statistics are the dominant modality for making sense of the world."
“The indeterminate future is somehow one in which probability and statistics are the dominant modality for making sense of the world.”

Decisions where outcomes (and therefore probabilities) are unknown are often the hardest. The default method problem solving often falls short.

Sometimes you have to play the odds and sometimes you have to play the calculus.

There are several different frameworks one could use to get a handle on the indeterminate vs. determinate question. The math version is calculus vs. statistics. In a determinate world, calculus dominates. You can calculate specific things precisely and deterministically. When you send a rocket to the moon, you have to calculate precisely where it is at all times. It’s not like some iterative startup where you launch the rocket and figure things out step by step. Do you make it to the moon? To Jupiter? Do you just get lost in space? There were lots of companies in the ’90s that had launch parties but no landing parties.

But the indeterminate future is somehow one in which probability and statistics are the dominant modality for making sense of the world. Bell curves and random walks define what the future is going to look like. The standard pedagogical argument is that high schools should get rid of calculus and replace it with statistics, which is really important and actually useful. There has been a powerful shift toward the idea that statistical ways of thinking are going to drive the future.

With calculus, you can calculate things far into the future. You can even calculate planetary locations years or decades from now. But there are no specifics in probability and statistics—only distributions. In these domains, all you can know about the future is that you can’t know it. You cannot dominate the future; antitheories dominate instead. The Larry Summers line about the economy was something like, “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but anyone who says he knows what will happen doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Today, all prophets are false prophets. That can only be true if people take a statistical view of the future.

— Peter Thiel

And this quote from The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz:

I learned one important lesson: Startup CEOs should not play the odds. When you are building a company, you must believe there is an answer and you cannot pay attention to your odds of finding it. You just have to find it. It matters not whether your chances are nine in ten or one in a thousand; your task is the same. … I don't believe in statistics. I believe in calculus.

People always ask me, “What’s the secret to being a successful CEO?” Sadly, there is no secret, but if there is one skill that stands out, it’s the ability to focus and make the best move when there are no good moves. It’s the moments where you feel most like hiding or dying that you can make the biggest difference as a CEO. In the rest of this chapter, I offer some lessons on how to make it through the struggle without quitting or throwing up too much.

… I follow the first principle of the Bushido—the way of the warrior: keep death in mind at all times. If a warrior keeps death in mind at all times and lives as though each day might be his last, he will conduct himself properly in all his actions. Similarly, if a CEO keeps the following lessons in mind, she will maintain the proper focus when hiring, training , and building her culture.

It's interesting to me that the skill that stands out to Horowitz is one that we can use to teach how to think and one Tyler Cowen feels is in short supply. Cowen says:

The more information that’s out there, the greater the returns to just being willing to sit down and apply yourself. Information isn’t what’s scarce; it’s the willingness to do something with it.

The Cookie Monster Knows More About Willpower Than You

cookiemonster

I had no idea how much thought actually went into the programming of Sesame Street before reading Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence.

Willpower is important to life success and that's why Cookie Monster knows more about it than you.

Before we get to that, let's consider the famous marshmallow test, a legendary study from the 1970s by psychologist Walter Mischel.

Mischel invited four-year-olds one by one into a “game room” at the Bing Nursery School on the Stanford campus. In the room the child was shown a tray with marshmallows or other treats and told to pick one she would like.

Then came the hard part. The experimenter told the child, “You can have your treat now, if you want. But if you don’t eat it until I come back from running an errand, you can have two then.”

The room was sanitized of distractions: no toys, no books, not even a picture. Self-control was a major feat for a four-year-old under such dire conditions. About a third grabbed the marshmallow on the spot, while another third or so waited the endless fifteen minutes until they were rewarded with two (the other third fell somewhere in the middle). Most significant: the ones who resisted the lure of the sweet had higher scores on measures of executive control, particularly the reallocation of attention.

How we focus holds the key to willpower, says Mischel. His hundreds of hours of observation of little kids fighting off temptation reveal “the strategic allocation of attention,” as he puts it, to be the crucial skill. The kids who waited out the full fifteen minutes did it by distracting themselves with tactics like pretend play, singing songs, or covering their eyes. If a kid just stared at the marshmallow, he was a goner (or more precisely, the marshmallow was).

When self-restraint comes up to instant gratification, there are three “sub-varieties of attention” that become engaged.

The first is the ability to voluntarily disengage our focus from an object of desire that powerfully grabs our attention. The second, resisting distraction, lets us keep our focus elsewhere— say, on fantasy play— rather than gravitating back to that juicy whatever. And the third allows us to keep our focus on a goal in the future, like the two marshmallows later. All that adds up to willpower.

That's easy for a marshmallow you say. Show me something in real life. As you wish. Enter the children of Dunedin, New Zealand.

Goleman explains:

Dunedin has a populace of just over one hundred thousand souls and houses one of that country’s largest universities. This combination made the town ripe for what may be the most significant study yet in the annals of science on the ingredients of life success.

In a dauntingly ambitious project, 1,037 children— all the babies born over a period of twelve months— were studied intensively in childhood and then tracked down decades later by a team assembled from several countries. The team represented many disciplines, each with its own perspective on that key marker for self-awareness, self-control.

These kids underwent an impressive battery of tests over their school years, such as assessing their tolerance for frustration and their restlessness, on the one hand, and powers of concentration and persistence on the other.

After a two-decade lull all but 4 percent of the kids were tracked down (a feat far easier in a stable country like New Zealand than, say, in the hypermobile United States). By then young adults, they were assessed for:

(1) Health. Physicals and lab tests looked at their cardiovascular, metabolic, psychiatric, respiratory, even dental and inflammatory conditions.
(2) Wealth. Whether they had savings, were single and raising a child, owned a home, had credit problems, had investments, or had retirement funds.
(3) Crime. All court records in Australia and New Zealand were searched to see if they had been convicted of a crime.

The better their self-control in childhood, the better the Dunedin kids were doing in their thirties. They had sounder health, were more successful financially, and were law-abiding citizens. The worse their childhood impulse management, the less they made, the shakier their health, and the more likely it was that they had a criminal record.

The bigger shock? A child’s level of self-control is as powerful a predictor of adult financial success and health as are “social class, wealth of family of origin, or IQ.”

Bottom line: kids can have the most economically privileged childhood, yet if they don’t master how to delay gratification in pursuit of their goals those early advantages may wash out in the course of life. In the United States, for example, only two in five children of parents in the top 20 percent of wealth end up in that privileged status; about 6 percent drift down to the bottom 20 percent in income. Conscientiousness seems as powerful a boost in the long run as fancy schools, SAT tutors, and pricey educational summer camps. Don’t underestimate the value of practicing the guitar or keeping that promise to feed the guinea pig and clean its cage.

So where does the Cookie Monster come in? Well anything we can do to increase “children's capacity for cognitive control will help them throughout life.” What better way to give them tools than with the Cookie Monster?

If you thought Sesame Street was just for giggles you're wrong. It's all about the science of learning. “At the core of every clip on Sesame Street is a curriculum goal,” said Michael Levine, executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. “Everything we show is pretested for its educational value.”

A network of academic experts reviews show content, while the real experts— preschoolers themselves— ensure that the target audience will understand the message. And shows with a particular focus, like a math concept, are tested again for their educational impact on what the preschoolers actually learned.

“We need top researchers sitting with top writers in developing the shows,” said Levine. “But we need to get it right: listen to the scientists, but then play with it— have some fun.”

Take a lesson in impulse control, the secret sauce in a segment about the Cookie Connoisseur Club. Alan, the owner of Hooper’s Store on Sesame Street, baked cookies to be sampled by the club— but no one had planned for Cookie Monster to join. When Cookie arrives by surprise on the scene he, of course, wants to eat all the cookies.

Alan explains to Cookie that if you want to be a member of the club, you need to control your impulse to gobble up all the cookies. Instead, you learn to savor the experience. First you pick up the cookie and look for imperfections, then smell it, and finally nibble a bit. But Cookie, impulse embodied, can only gobble the cookie down.

To get the self-regulation strategies right in this segment, says Rosemarie Truglio, senior vice president for education and research, they consulted with none other than Walter Mischel, the mastermind behind the marshmallow test.

Mischel proposed teaching Cookie cognitive control strategies like “Think of the cookie as something else” and reminding himself of that something. So Cookie sees the cookie is round and looks like a yo-yo, and dutifully repeats to himself over and over that the cookie is a yo-yo. But then he gobbles anyway.

To help Cookie take just a nibble— a major triumph of willpower—Mischel suggested a different impulse-delay strategy. Alan tells Cookie, “I know this is hard for you, but what’s more important: this cookie now, or getting into the club where you’ll get all kinds of cookies?” That did the trick.

“Teachers in early grades tell (Sesame Street), I need kids to come to me ready to sit down, focus, manage their emotions, listen to directions, collaborate, and make friends,” Truglio explained. “Then I can teach them letters and numbers.”

Concluding, Goleman writes:

“Cultivating a sense for math and early literacy skills,” Levine told me, requires self-control, based on changes in executive function during the preschool years. The inhibitory controls related to executive functioning correlate closely with both early math and reading ability. “Teaching these self-regulation skills,” he added, “may actually rewire parts of the brain for kids in whom they have been underdeveloped.”

Check out this video.

Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence is a must read for learning more about the impoverishment of attention.

Why do we lose focus so easily?

From an excellent career coach column in the New York Times:

People often lose their concentration when they are bored, of course, but also when they are engaged in challenging tasks, says Peter Bregman, author of “18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done” and chief executive of a management consultancy in New York. “We have a momentary feeling of wanting to escape what’s difficult or boring, so we jump out,” he says — hence the appeal of e-mail and shopping Web sites.

The brain’s wiring also lends itself to being distracted. The part of the brain devoted to attention is connected to the brain’s emotional center, says Srini Pillay, author of “Your Brain and Business” and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Any strong emotion — frustration with a colleague, problems at home — can disrupt your attention, he says.

Add to that the perceived virtue of multitasking both socially and at work. Studies and books, over the last decade, have consistently demonstrated our inability to multitask.

How can you set up your day so you aren’t easily distracted and can complete your tasks?

Take more control by structuring your time and becoming more aware of your behavior, Mr. Bregman says. For example, he often sets his phone alarm to go off every hour, as a reminder to stay on task.

“It’s a way of creating awareness,” he says. “You have to notice you’ve lost focus in order to do something about it.”

You are more vulnerable to distraction when you’re uncomfortable, hungry or tired, so it’s important to plan “self-management activities,” says Dr. Epstein, such as when to eat, go to the gym or take a walk.

Starting the day with a to-do list is important, but if it’s overly ambitious you will put yourself in a state of anticipatory anxiety, Dr. Pillay says. That makes it hard for the brain — which doesn’t like uncertainty — to concentrate. “Choosing three or four things as your priority for the day allows your brain to settle down and focus,” he says. Look at what is realistically possible and be specific with yourself about what you can and cannot do that day.

Looking for more? Try CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Handling Your Fast-Paced Life.

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