I have always admired people who are able to work on more than one project at a time, the real multi-taskers. In fact I can remember times when, as a manager, I could be quite critical of people who only seemed to be able to focus on one thing at a time. I'm now wondering if I've got it all wrong.
I'm trying to write this on the train down from the Lake District to London, a trip I do at least once a week. Whilst, over the years, I've got used to the many distractions that all conspire to destroy my concentration, I still find that focusing on doing one thing well in a busy environment is really difficult.
Every three minutes or so, there's an announcement:
"The next stop will be Warrington Bank Quay". Repeated a couple of times for good measure.
"If you are leaving the train here then please take all of your belongings with you".
"This is Warrington Bank Quay".
"This train is the 8.23 train to London Euston, stopping at Lancaster, Preston, Wigan, Warrington Bank Quay and London Euston" (Just in case you got on the wrong train!)
"Please keep your belongings with you at all times as unattended baggage may be removed and destroyed".
"The shop is now open selling hot drinks, sandwiches, alcohol, bacon buns, newspapers…"
"The shop is now closed due to a staff change over at Preston, it will re-open in about 30 minutes time".
"If you have just joined the train then please have your tickets and rail cards ready for inspection".
"This train is currently running ten minutes late due to a signalling issue at Watford".
You get the idea.
As well as this, everyone seems to be having fascinating conversations on their mobile phones at unnecessarily high volumes.
"Hi there, it's me, it's a terrible reception! Was your breakfast cold? Hello? Hello?!"
"I'm on the train. Yes. I'm going to London. What? Hello? I'll ring you back!"
"Hi there, it's Chris here, just ringing for an update on the Marsden contract. What? I can't hear you…hello?"
And of course, there is the beautiful English countryside flying past the window, vying with my laptop for my attention as emails ping into my inbox.
Not a great environment in which to be creative or in which to focus on a single topic without distraction!
We expect many people to focus really well on doing one thing at a time. Pilots, Athletes, Surgeons, Musicians and others all demonstrate complete expertise and focus in what they are doing at the time. So why not ourselves? When I really want to do a good job of something, I need to focus on it. I can probably manage a few distractions - listening to music, or breaking off for a short chat - but I know that for me to do something justice and to feel good about it, I need to start at the beginning and work on it until I produce a result that I am really happy with.
When our consultants are delivering a programme for one of our clients, we always encourage them to focus completely on the job in hand, delegating other priorities and activities so that they can really concentrate on doing the very best job they can, in the moment. We do the same with our participants, encouraging them to switch off their mobile phones, leave their laptop closed and to really become mindful of the people and environment they find themselves in.
For me, doing one thing at a time is a source of relaxation and a calming way of working. Life can get so complicated and stressful, with information coming simultaneously from many different directions, high expectations for immediate decisions and quick turn around and often competing priorities. For me, it’s actually a luxury to do one thing at a time, even if it is demanding. In fact, the more challenging and involving it is, the more I find it strangely relaxing. I used to really enjoy rock climbing as a form of relaxation for this very reason. To succeed you have to really focus on the here and now, taking each move in turn and removing any other thoughts or distractions from your mind.
Here is a good rationale for "The Beauty Of Doing One Thing At A Time"
I find the best way to beat stress at work is to find one single challenge that will completely absorb me for a period of time, even if that challenge is stressful in its own sense.
The strategy I use now, to help me identify priorities and then to focus on doing one thing at a time, is to spend ten minutes at the beginning and end of my day to really focus on what I am trying to achieve and what my key priorities are, so that I can allocate time to do them, one thing at a time.
"We have just arrived at London Euston, this is London Euston, please leave the train here".
David Williams is Impact's Founder and CEO.