Person holding camera lens - Focus - represents fighting distractions

Focus: From Multitasking to Single-tasking

Focus, focus, just try to focus! Most of us have probably heard something along these lines before. Such a powerful skill, when applied correctly. One which we were constantly told to apply while in school. But really think back. Did you ever really learn how to focus? Because as far back as I can remember it was always something that we were told to do but never really shown how to do. Maybe something along the lines of “sit still” or “just pay attention” might cross your mind. But these are just vague commands if you really think about it. It still doesn’t really tell you what it means to really focus. Maybe it’s time we took a moment to think about what it really means to focus.

One thing I do know for sure, is that as a child we’re taught to focus by only applying ourselves to one task. So I’m just here trying to figure out when focusing became something we do by multitasking.

Why is it important to focus?

The shorter way to do many things is to only do one thing at a time.

― Mozart

Focus, this focus that. Why bother? Does it really matter how, when you get the work done anyway? If that’s a question you are still asking yourself, then you need to reconsider how much you value your own time. According to dictionary.com, focusing is when we concentrate or direct our attention/efforts. With that in mind, focusing is like the human equivalent of a super power. Now bear with me! The true value of focusing is in what it allows you to accomplish. It’s nature’s tool to help us achieve that which we set out to do in the least amount of time.

If I haven’t lost you yet, let me give you this nature analogy: A hawk uses it’s focus to detect its prey from up in the sky, a frog patiently observes and waits to catch flies as they pass by, a lion stalks its prey with the utmost focus, the list goes on. If you are not using your focus, for what it was initially intended for, survival, then why not apply it elsewhere? Why let it go to waste?

What does it mean to focus?

If only it was as simple as turning a lens and adjusting focus until the image becomes clear. Unfortunately, we’re not built that way. It can, however, be helpful to think of your mind as a camera with a lens which you can move and adjust as needed, until the task becomes clear. Focusing on each task can then be seen as taking a mental picture. Now imagine doing multiple things at the same time: writing a paper, watching videos on youtube and checking your phone each time notifications light up the screen. Reading it like this, it might sound excessive but for many it’s a not too distant reality.

What is multitasking?

The art of messing up several things at once

―  Anonymous

To the person guilty of browsing with 13 tabs open at once, to the person writing a paper while listening to music, to the person trying to read while the tv is on believe it or not, you are multitasking. Special shout out to the person trying to work while their colleagues chat away nearby. We both know that you’re catching bits and pieces of the conversation.

For every single task that you alternate between, you are taking a separate mental picture and adjusting the focus of your lens every single time. It might go unnoticed to you, because we could be talking about a fraction of a second, but the reality is, you are just quickly switching between tasks. So to do this and say that you are focusing, seems as though you’re completely missing the point of focusing altogether. According to an Harvard Business Review Article on Multitasking, our productivity decreases by 40% when switching between tasks. Funnily enough, we felt so productive, though, doing all these tasks at once. The lesson here is, being busy is not being productive. Multitasking is busywork in a society where everyone is busy but few are productive.

Now, there is nothing wrong with multitasking. But there is something wrong with telling yourself you are being efficient when you are just not. gorilla. Especially when you know there is a better way to get the job done. That way might not always be as exciting or instantly gratifying, but it is definitely more rewarding once completed. Did I mention that you get the job done faster and with less mistakes? Win-win, don’t you think?

Time to focus

Now, would you call yourself a multitasker or a singletasker? If you multitask, have you ever stopped to think about why you do it? Is it for instant gratification? Is it for productivity’s sake? Or do you feel that you’re the exception that’s cracked the code. Truth is, we all think we are the exception. It might be time to ditch the exceptional thinking and shift to accepting thinking. We need to accept our tendencies to multitask and training ourselves to know when to apply single-tasking. As with other muscles, the more we exercise our ability to focus, the better we become at it.

I’m not going to lie, single-tasking is not glamorous. We live in a society where we praise each other for multitasking. But what are we really getting measured on? Our abilities to do a lot at once? Or our ability to get the job done WHILE also doing it well? There is something to be said about being present in the moment and this does not just apply to mindfulness exercises, but also to the things we do every day. It’s time to enjoy things fully one-by-one. Instead of all at once and partially.

Also, if we’re talking about a task that isn’t as fun then we can still give it our full attention to make sure we finish it as quickly and as best as we can. That way we can avoid having to go back and fix mistakes that could have been easily avoided.

Shifting our Mindset

But what if we’re multitasking because we can not imagine doing it any other way. It can seem intimidating to approach a task with your full attention. Strangely enough it might even feel like wasting time to only work on one task at a time. Dare I say boring? If you have ever had these thoughts creeping in your head then maybe it’s time to adjust the way you view and approach your tasks. Focusing can help us win the fight against inattentional blindness caused by us constantly dividing our attention. Did you catch the gorilla in the text? Or was your attention also divided while reading this post?

For everything there is a time and place. If you’re watching a movie on the couch and scrolling through instagram, no problem there. The cost of your reduced attention is not really hurting anybody. However, when you have a deadline for a paper, splitting your attention by browsing online will cost you valuable time. It might even take you twice as long to finish that paper compared to if you had just focused all your attention on writing. Reading it like this, might make you feel that this concept is so basic and generally accepted that it’s annoying to be reminded of it. But honestly, most people will disregard this simple truth next time they have an important/time-sensitive task to do.

Takeaways

Somewhere along the way multitasking became the new productive for most people. The reality is that it’s not as productive as it feels.

Let’s take this great gift from our primal toolkit and put it to good use. Don’t forget though that everything has its time and place. This doesn’t mean you can’t multitask at all. If it’s important and it has to get done, just focus on that one task and get it done.

The goal is quality over quantity and learning to do more by doing less. We’re living in busy times and many of us might feel overwhelmed by all the possibilities. So much so that we ask ourselves, where do I start? The strange truth is, if you want to get a lot done you have to tackle one thing at a time. Only then are you really improving your productivity and getting more done in less time.

Let’s stop being busy and start being productive. Let’s get the job done and let’s get it done faster! What I’m proposing here is to use the gift that nature gave us. Leverage your ability to focus and make the most of your time.


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“Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work in hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus”

― Alexander Graham Bell

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