Flash Point: Learning to Focus

Barry Ritholtz published an interesting piece today: Things I Don’t Care About. The premise is by identifying and ignoring these things, one can recover considerable time used in pursuing them. As we thought about this, particularly in relation to some of our own practices in developing this site, we thought it would be an excellent exercise to develop the theme as a set of guidelines or rules. The reader may do what he wishes with the result.

The overall goal is to maximize the use of one’s time. We would start by distinguishing intellectual pursuits from physical activities. The latter may benefit from a similar discipline but we will restrict this study to the former.

The Classification System

The first step is to divide all issues, topics, events, etc. that we encounter, into a binary categorization:

  1. ‘Things I am interested in.’
  2. ‘Things I am not interested in.’

Rules for classification:

  1. Place every issue you encounter into one of the two categories but don’t agonize over the decision (the system allows for changes).
  2. When you encounter something pertaining to an issue in category one, do the following:
    1. Review it.
    2. Do one of the following:
      1. Use it immediately. This might include filing or noting it for an identified possible future use.
      2. Discard it. Assess whether the issue should therefore be moved into category two.
  3. When you encounter something pertaining to an issue in category two, do the following:
    1. Ignore it unless something grabs your attention.
    2. If something does, reassess whether it should be moved into category one, either as an entire issue or a subissue.
  4. If necessary, break large issues into smaller subsets. A topic of interest may have areas that are uninteresting. A topic that is uninteresting may be found to have a subset that is. Break the topic into subsets and place them in the appropriate categories.
  5. Where appropriate, if a category collects a number of subsets or topics that are related, see if they can be replaced by a single encompassing topic. The aim is to try and keep our categories small. If categories become too cluttered, we will not use the system.
  6. Not everything needs to be formally added to the system. Often just being aware of what we are trying to do will allow us to bypass the formality of a documented categorization.
  7. Topics should be free to move back and forth. Indecision should force us to take a closer look at the motive for our choice or lack thereof.

Evaluating Interest

We have limited resources in terms of money, cognitive abilities, and most of all, time. There is an immense amount of information available at every moment that may initially pique our interest. The key is to have a protocol for quickly deciding which category an item should be placed in. There are a number of questions we can ask ourselves to assess this:

  1. Where does the item fit in terms of our active areas of interests, goals, projects and priorities?
  2. What does the item contribute to the area it fits into?
  3. How much is it likely to consume in terms of resources, particularly time?
  4. Is it worth it (cost/benefit analysis)?
  5. How far should we take it before the cost in time exceeds the perceived benefit?

There have been many issues that we began to investigate, only to abandon because it became clear the effort to make an intelligent assessment was not worth the time to us that it was going to take.

Is This for You?

We have used many of these principles in an ad hoc fashion. Writing a blog demands some degree of discipline and discrimination. We have written this post primarily for our own use. In fact the entire site reflects our interests at different points in time. In the process, we have dealt with certain topics  to a degree that satisfies us from a cost/benefit analysis point of view. Topics we feel we have researched and documented to a satisfactory degree include:

  • Hurricanes
  • The contribution of CO2 to global warming
  • The Idle No More movement
  • The Fed’s balance sheet and general Fed activity
  • others that don’t immediately come to mind

In each case, we have discovered enough data and factual information to satisfy our interest. This doesn’t mean that the topics were exhausted or that we wont return to them. It does mean that we feel we can argue a position intelligently, unlike most of the population who can argue from emotion and doctrinal belief at best. If this material is useful to you, then we are both blessed.

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