I learned about the power of focus and concentration yesterday.
It was a simple lesson, really, one that came from the blessing of an unexpected three hours of unscheduled time when a meeting scheduled to last all day ended early. I suddenly had a half-day to myself.
I work in an environment where multi-tasking is part of the culture. The people I interact with regularly work in five buildings in the Virginia Beach area, and throughout the United States. A “meeting” is a conference call, sometimes with an interactive web presentation, and often with emails flying in the background.
Our meetings aren’t any different from meetings in other companies. A typical gathering covers several topics, some, which affect me directly, and some that don’t. It’s easy to tune-out and send or respond to an email that keeps a different project moving along, all while half-listening to the conversation. Multi-tasking is a way of life.
I also have a full schedule. I spend most my work day meetings or interacting with my team, so it’s rare I have unscheduled time to focus on a specific projects. The past couple of weeks have been especially difficult as we’ve prepared for and delivered presentations associated with a major business expansion. I’ve squeezed in work on other projects and responses to my team as time allowed, usually thinking about something else, and watching my email out of the corner of my eye. I call that mental multi-tasking.
Even when I get a window of unscheduled time, I usually fight within myself to decide which project gets my attention, and too often try to tackle multiple things at the same time. I don’t have a cute multi-tasking reference for this, but it’s definitely multitasking.
Note the pattern here. Constant multi-tasking.
I know better, of course. I’m a logical person. I’ve read several articles, done the time-management training classes. I know it’s impossible to do anything at a high level without focus. But I’ve let myself slip into the culture of multi-tasking that surrounds me, and I know that I struggle to produce my best work because I’m not thinking carefully enough, and that frustrates me. Plus, honestly, the constant shifting and half-thoughts physical and emotionally drain me.
That’s why yesterday was so refreshing.
With an entire afternoon suddenly free, I forced myself to focus on just one project. It’s a big, complex project. It’s been underway for a while now, and I haven’t slowed down enough to look at it carefully in a while. I project is in decent shape, fine in some areas, missing a piece or two here, a part or two a little off track there, but overall, the state of the project was good.
What caught my attention, though, wasn’t the project itself. It was how I felt as I focused on just one thing, and how my brain started working when it had fewer inputs and time to process what it was receiving. Three things happened:
- First, as I reviewed everything related to the project, I noticed that it felt good to have a complete grasp of the project. It gave me a sense of comfort and control.
- Second, as I revised the project plan and sorted out my approach to it for next week, I felt confident and could see a clear path to completion.
- Third, my brain started firing with implications for this work beyond the project at hand. I saw relationships to other work more clearly, and ways this work could shorten timelines or improve work on other projects. I actually felt creative for a moment.
A sense of comfort and control. Confidence. A clear path. Creativity. As I left work Friday night, I felt more energized than I had in several days. I felt good about myself, about my ability, and about what I can do.
All because I was able to focus.
The challenge, of course, is to repeat the experience as often as possible. Because I really liked the outcome.