Focus and the myth of multi tasking

Hi, I'm Pete Mosley. I'm a coach, speaker and author of The Art of Shouting Quietly – a guide to self-promotion for introverts and other quiet souls. Extrovert or introvert, quiet or loud, confidence can be an issue for all of us. This post explores a few simple ways to shift our focus towards the things that will add value and quality to our life.

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Focus and the myth of multi tasking.

Years ago, I was given a juggling lesson by a performer from the Latvian State Circus. I was new to the skill and needless to say, I was dropping things all over the place. He spent a few minutes watching what I was doing and then gave me the following advice:

‘Pete’, he said, ‘you need to learn the art of seeing without looking’.

What he had noticed was the fact that I was trying to focus on each ball in turn as it rose and fell and as a result was actually losing track of all of them.

He trained me to relax my eyes and look into middle distance. In this relaxed state I could see all the balls moving within my peripheral vision without actually looking directly at any one of them.  My other senses then coordinated themselves to successfully throw and catch. It was a wonderful bit of Zen-like realisation and a masterful metaphor for managing complex tasks.

Focus on one thing too much and lose track of everything else - or defocus to the extent that nothing is managed effectively.

This all came to mind with a resounding thump other day when I was reminded that I had missed an important deadline. I had simply been so busy focusing on a single important goal (and telling myself that it was OK to do so) that I lost track of something else completely.  

Focus is really important. External forces are making our lives more complex at an exponential rate. We are increasingly distracted by incoming signals over which we have no real control. Or at least it seems that way.

We are exhorted to ‘multi-task’ or learn time management skills in order to cope. There is a whole debate going on within neuroscience about multi tasking and whether it is really possible. When you study someone who is seemingly multi-tasking, it turns out they are simply adept at changing focus very rapidly between one task and another. It is actually a question of managing and sequencing multiple foci effectively.   

What is the relevance of all this to our lives and businesses?

Busy people, by nature, bring a constant stream of new ideas into the world. The temptation is to try and bring too many of them to maturity all at once. Indeed, a lot of the entrepreneurs and managers I work with feel torn if they leave ideas undeveloped or on the back burner for too long. As a result they end up stressed or pulled in too many directions.  Every new idea becomes a disruptive force that results in fuzzy thinking. What do you do first?

Which brings me back to the circus expert’s original premise – that thing of seeing without looking? Essentially it was about keeping an overview whilst simultaneously managing a timeline full of smaller events. And that’s what we need to do. We need to pop back into overview mode often enough to make sure everything gets managed in the way it should be.

We all need a mix of strategy and tactics in order to keep things moving along as they should – strategy being the overview of our creativity, business and life ambitions – and tactics being the things we do to keep making progress on a day-to-day basis – whatever that might be.

The method you use keep track of things is key – you need to find a way of planning and managing that suits your learning style and values. For example, I have a habit of writing ideas down in a notebook – well, several notebooks actually - the problem then is that as soon as the notebook is closed and put on the shelf, the ideas drop from sight. 

I’ve gone back to my notebooks from time to time only to discover that I’ve written the same ideas down in a variety of different places.  Great! I haven’t forgotten the ideas, but what I have done is allowed them to be lost in the fog of incoming demands. So, as a visual person, I have to complement this simple recording of ideas with a wall-based visual plan – a flipchart sized mind-map or timeline, with single actions and goals written on individual post-it notes. By having a visual reminder right in front of my eyes I don’t lose ideas in the fog and I have something upon which I can see the big picture – without having to go hunting for the individual ideas that would otherwise remain hidden away.

The notable times when I’ve dropped a ball, metaphorically speaking, are when I haven’t had the Big Plan up on the wall.

Focus is also about prioritisation – keeping track of what is important and not allowing ongoing daily hassle and crises to push the really important stuff onto the back burner. We all do this – we forget to give ourselves time for creative dreaming, or prioritise time to look after our health or pay attention to our loved ones – constantly delaying until we are ‘less busy’. 

In the face of an overwhelm of ideas it is sometimes necessary to employ a kind of creative triage – to consciously decide which ideas need our attention most urgently, which simply require daily maintenance – and importantly, which should be allowed to slip away.

Try this – get a sheet of paper and draw a vertical line down the middle. Write the words ‘urgent’ on one side and ‘important’ on the other. Start listing all the things that come to mind. Usually, all the things on the urgent side are the things that fill our days with annoyance and hassle and the things on the important side are the things that are most important in the long term but which we end up leaving for another day (better diet, health, exercise, quality time etc.) Once you have made your lists, think about how to reduce the impact of all the tiresome but ultimately less important demands in order to make more time for the quality stuff. 

(Note: This exercise is a 'quick and dirty' version of the Eisenhower Matrix - worth googling if you'd like to try this exercise in more detail)

To return once more to the juggling analogy, we need to practice the habit of taking the time to restore a clear overview of our lives and businesses. Once that pattern has been established it becomes easier to switch our selective focus, in a tactical way, towards whatever is the most profitable – and healthy - priority.

Pete Mosley

For an informal chat about 1-1 support, email me here.

Author: The Art of Shouting Quietly

Pete Mosley PCC

Coach/Speaker/Writer, The Art of Work

I work with quiet, thoughtful and purpose-driven individuals to help build confidence in both life and work, for example by supporting them to find a voice, speak up, pitch or talk in public without feeling intimidated by louder voices. As a reflective person myself, I'm drawn towards working with others who find the cut and thrust of everyday life to be a challenge. I also help business owners work out how to promote themselves and build an audience for their work. I'm a graduate of the acclaimed Barefoot Postgraduate Certificate in Business & Personal Coaching, and I now teach for Barefoot. My book - The Art of Shouting Quietly - a guide to self-promotion for introverts and other quiet souls – has sold in 25 countries around the world. I'm very experienced - I have 15 years of track record as a mentor in the Creative Industries prior to training as a coach in 2008. Please don't hesitate to get in touch - I'm always happy to talk with you about coaching/mentoring on the phone - with no obligation.