Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The gift of your attention

"Take some time each day and create a "no multitasking zone." It doesn't have to be for long; five minutes would be a great place to start, during which you can simply focus on one object (or task) at a time.

"Imagine what that might be like: when you're on the phone with a client, you're on the phone, bringing your natural intelligence and insight to bear. When you're typing an email, you're simply focused on that email. It's not hard to imagine the quality of results when you focus on the tasks at hand."--Jon Rubenstein, from Multitasking is Not Your Friend, posted on the blog The Buddha at Work on

My father spent many years waking up at 3AM. He'd go downstairs, make himself a cup of watered-down espresso, and then return to his study (once my room, eons ago) to do paperwork. I don't know for sure why, as a construction project manager, he kept farmer's hours. My guess is that he wanted time to focus on his work without any distractions. No one would be calling him on his cell at 3AM, no one would be sending him urgent email messages or pulling him into a meeting. Everyone else in the house was asleep, and he must have felt a relief at being left alone--to sip his coffee, review his notes, focus on one project and then the next. I imagine this was the time in his day that he was the most productive.

Waking up at 3AM is not the healthiest way to get your work done unless you're working the early shift. But there was no other time for him to concentrate--he left the house at 5AM and typically didn't return from his Manhattan office until 8 or 9PM.

I've been thinking about the concept of time, and how we handle the same 24 hours a day, every day. It seems like the trend is moving away from focusing on one project to trying to keep on top of five or more, all coming from different outlets: your cell phone, computer, Blackberry, etc. Attention Deficit Disorder no longer seems like an aberration in a minority of children. It is becoming normal, a necessary byproduct of our digital age.

I'm more like my father, I think--I like to focus on one thing at a time and give it my complete and undivided attention. I feel like switching over from writing a press release to, say, checking my email every five minutes or posting on Facebook is a bad habit, not a way to do business. Multi-tasking means it will take me three times as long to get one release written, and meanwhile I've spent most of my time on a bunch of small stuff that doesn't add up to a hill of beans at the end of the day.

I'm used to juggling different projects over the course of a day--to say in a job interview that you're able to multi-task is like saying you know how to fix a jam in the printer. But is it effective multi-tasking when you're answering an IM while reading a book review and finishing up an email to an author? Is it really a good idea to have seven windows open on your computer at once when three would be sufficient?

I guess when it comes to getting work done, I'm more of a serial monogamist than a swinger. I like to invest my time doing one task and then the other. I'm not like the curt manager who at meetings can carry on two different conversations at once. I am slow but deliberate, comfortable only when the noise fades away and I am completely engaged--in the act of writing the essay or talking to the friend or preparing the meal. Don't try talking to me when I'm working in the kitchen--I'm liable to get flustered and add an extra teaspoon of bouillon to the soup. For me it's all about being in the flow.

There are people who are effective multi-taskers. They tend to talk in sound bytes, they're comfortable with the 140-word limit on Twitter and the childish shorthand of "C U @ 8" of a text message, they see the value of flash fiction or CNN headline news. There are many advantages to being this kind of person--busy executives like people who are quick on their feet and can summarize the plot points and send one-sentence emails. Mike and I both have a tendency to write long, wordy emails and I'm sure most of what we write goes unread. I'm sure when you see this blog entry, you'll probably skim it, and I don't blame you.

But what about some appreciation for the uni-tasker? The person who deliberates rather than jumps, gives her friends or colleagues her undivided attention instead of interrupting them to take that call on her cell phone?

And what happened to just sitting and daydreaming? How about just doing nothing but sitting still and silent? I like to read on the train, but sometimes I find myself putting the book away just so I can stare out the window to look at the snow on the branches of the tall pine trees lining Beacon Street. An ex-boss of mine called it "sitting and staring at the wall." After a day of looking at a computer screen for 8 hours, I want to unplug and stare at the vase of pink tulips on the kitchen table, or at my husband's smile, or at the kitten as she prepares for another ill-fated sneak attack on my older cat. Without this time of "doing nothing" I become like a horse who won't move no matter how much you pull on my reins. But give me some time for quiet contemplation and I will gladly resume pulling the wagon.

So along with uni-tasking, why not try simply unplugging all your digital connections so you can sit there and do nothing. You're really not doing nothing you know. What you're doing is giving yourself permission to breathe in the present moment, noticing everything around you as if you had been asleep and now you're waking up. If we could all do this once a day, everyday, I think we could change this idea that so-called multi-tasking is the only way to live full, productive lives in the 21st Century.


Mike C said...

Let it be known that I have of late been making conscious effort to ruthlessly edit my emails. :-)

- the husband

PS See also

Nathan said...

When I read that line about taking a 5 minute break from multi-tasking, I thought: "Man, if multi-tasking has taken over that much, people are in big, big trouble!"

Pammer said...

That was lovely, Jen. I am somewhere in the middle of the multi-tasker and the uni-tasker. I force myself into uni-tasking everytime I pack up and leave for Africa. It's more difficult to do it when I'm at home with the computer on. But I absolutely hear what you are saying and relate to every word. Thanks for sharing. I love reading your blog.

Tiffany Faith Lindsey said...

Stopped multi-tasking long enough to read this entry. Not skim, read. And guess what? The kids still got fed, the laundry still got washed and dried and the email was all answered. Guess you're right, Sweetie!