How many times have I walked to the other side of the shop with a goal in mind and I get there and I see something else and I get distracted and I turn around and I walk back to my bench and I try to remember what I was doing there at the bench and I recall then that I had completely forgot about my mission and my goal of my walk across the shop. Sigh.

I can’t say it was that I heard the meadowlark singing and I got distracted by its sweet song. Nope, it was my brain. Something about focus that is lacking in it these days.

And perhaps you are not facing this. I envy you. But it is an issue for me. Focus and distraction in this age of Covid and catastrophe and political upheaval. How do we deal with this lack, this dearth of focus?

Let me tell you a story about someone who did not fail in his resolve.

It was some time back when my shop was located in that old furniture factory near the railroad tracks. I held classes there for the Studio when I first opened it up. We were in class that day with a full group of folks building Craftsman style tables. It was a nice project for which we had to make mortising templates for cutting joints with a plunge router. My method was to make up a mortising template attached to a fence. You ran that fence against the fence of the router table and made a slot in your template of the right size and length. Your router’s round template guide ran in that slot, et voila! Mortise. It really took more time to make the template than to make the cuts later on.

Anyway, I had gotten hold of some extra dense 1/4″ Masonite hardboard, and we were using that to make our templates. I had told the students to go slowly when making the mortise cut for the slot. Don’t rush, do a good job, take your time feeding right to left on the router table. Work into the rotation of the bit and it would push you in tight to the router table fence. Focus on the job at hand. All was good.

One of the last students to make his template was doing everything that I had asked of him. I had turned my back to him to help out someone else. The student at the router table took his time with the cut and moved the work slowly into the bit. But the Masonite was so hard and the bit now so dull after so many cuts in this hardboard that it didn’t cut so much as it burned its way through the Masonite. And the resulting dust from the cut was sitting on top of the router table smoldering and glowing red and trying to catch itself on fire.

This one motivated student did not stop his cut however. No siree. He still carefully routed his template slot, aware as he was of the glowing Masonite dust. He could see it there smoldering in front of him, but he did not stop. No. He knew about the fire but he was not a quitter. He stayed focused. He routed the slot and instead of stopping he blew on the sawdust trying to extinguish the fire with his intrepid breath. Two jobs at once he was trying to perform. His tenacity, his focus, his single-minded determination to get the job done was masterful in its own way. I have to give him credit for this.

But when I looked to see how he was doing and noticed the situation, I marched right over to this student, who again was doing everything that I had asked of him, and I gave him the throat slash sign anyway to kill the router motor and stop his cutting. He was still routing and blowing on the red embers, but he saw me and did stop the cut. I patted out the combustibles on top of the router table and I said to him and then to everyone else in class, “You know . . . in the wood shop . . . when there’s a fire on top of the router table,” and I paused, “you know the first thing you should do is to put out the fire. Stop your work and put out the fire. Then you can continue your cut.”

It was a small piece of advice. One that I hadn’t mentioned because I didn’t think it needed mentioning. Yet it had turned out to be words of wisdom that was worth passing on now to all my students. We carefully cleaned the bit. No harm had been done. We continued on with our cutting. And we all learned a valuable lesson that day.

That was true focus. And I try in my own way these days to remind myself on my next trip across the shop to set down the tool I had in hand so I don’t set it down across the shop where I don’t need it and I remind myself to get the task done that I have set out to do. Whatever it may have been. Get that job done. But if a fire starts because of this focus, put the fire out first and then complete my task.

You are welcome for this valuable advice.


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