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FOCUS / fok∂s /NOUN/ The center of interest or activity

March 18, 2008

231-focus2.jpg I love my yoga class. Not only does sitting cross-legged in a dim room have a calming effect, it also allows me a few precious moments to make a mental list of what I need to do: pick up the dry-cleaning (breathe in), lunch on Wednesday (breathe out), write thank-you card (breathe in), return Sam’s call (breathe out). In fact, as I write this article, I’m doing two loads of laundry, I’ve just brewed a pot of coffee and I’m eating breakfast. Yep. I’m an expert multitasker. Frankly, how else does one survive in today’s world?

As Claudia Wallis (Time Magazine, March 2006) points out, multitasking is an innate capability humans have always possessed. However, she cautions: “Decades of research (not to mention common sense) indicate that the quality of one’s output and depth of thought deteriorate as one attends to ever more tasks.” In other words, although our brain can multitask, it doesn’t handle it very well.

According to Jordan Grafman, chief of the cognitive neuroscience section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), it may seem like we’re able to listen to music, research a topic and write an email all at once, but “what’s really going on is a rapid toggling among tasks rather than simultaneous processing.”

Since we live in a world where multitasking is ingrained in our culture, how do we fight the urge not to fill every precious second in our day with two or more activities, and still accomplish everything we set out to do? To answer this question, we consider two factors: space and time.

Time is relative. Organizational alchemist, Izzy Gesell writes, “Defining things as fast or slow is more about personal opinion and perception than objective fact. After all, doesn’t time fly when you are having fun? Given our reliance on a technology universe, it’s no wonder that our bodies are beginning to replicate nanosecond time. So when you find yourself impatiently waiting for your computer to boot up or tapping your foot while your microwave takes so long to finish cooking, your body is responding to your internal dialogue saying, “This is dawdling.”

Not only is multitasking about being efficient and productive, it’s about feeding our culture of urgency: we need more, faster, better, now. But the more space you take up in your brain to accommodate a growing number of things you want to accomplish, the less time you have to focus on what needs to get done, and the more likely that the quality will suffer. Or worse — you reach an impasse and nothing can budge.

Management consultant and Australian university professor Dr. Retha Wiesner, refers to this as the “logjam” theory: “When logs in a stream become all jammed up, moving any one log frees the others to move, because the act of moving a single piece creates space which in turn allows the other pieces to move.”

Think back to Boot Camp, during the Business Process Integration exercise. The customer requests a signed index card, but the unit can only flow through the process on a palette of five batched cards. In order to get more products out to the customer, participants usually begin signing their name faster. They do this because it’s the only perceived control they have over the outcome. However, instead of watching quantity go up, they see quality go down. It’s only when we create a communications system that allows only one item to flow through the process at a time that both quality and output increase.

Here’s another way to look at it: cycle time is really just another way of saying ‘distraction’. Whether it’s a major project at work, or simply making dinner, the end result will always be better if we give one task all of our attention, or what some people refer to as monotasking. While multitasking diffuses energy and power, monotasking is a way of concentrating energy and cultivating the power to stay on task. The outcome will be better, and it’s likely to be done faster, thus allowing you to reap the benefits sooner.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t ever multitask again; you can still chop onions while listening to the radio and watch your kids. It just means that in an environment where our attention is constantly pulled in twenty directions at once, knowing how and when to focus on an important task (at work or at home) will always yield better results – both personally (you’ll feel better) and professionally (you’ll perform better).

During last week’s yoga class the instructor told us this week we’d be working on a posture that would teach us how to focus better. It’s called the ‘standing-head-to-knee-pose’ where you hold one leg out in front of you with both your hands and then pick one spot in the room and focus on it in order to maintain your balance. I don’t know about you, but I sure won’t be making any to do lists while holding my balance. In the end, isn’t that what focus is all about? Finding a balance in your life in order to be effective and productive no matter what you do.