Divide Your Attention And Stay Focused

by Randy Murray on October 18, 2010

Those who walk the earth and are truly single-minded can be frightening creatures. We may call such people obsessive, psychopathic, disturbed. But those of us who struggle to get enough things done sometimes wish for a touch of this dedicated single vision.

At any given moment, I have no fewer than ten separate projects moving forward at the same time. They are a mix of deliverables for different clients and of my key personal projects. And this does not include anything outside of my work. There are times when it must appear to someone outside looking in that I’m impossibly organized and productive (sometimes the impossible part of it looks that way from inside, too). But that is not the case.

How do I do it? Either I am truly a super genius or I’ve developed habits of maintaining brief periods of focus and undivided attention. My friends assure me that I am not the former and my wife wonders how I manage to drive myself anywhere without her present. So it must be the focus thing.

The habits and practices of the writer can help with developing focus, even for non-writers. Writing takes intense focus for periods of time. Frankly, most professions require the same thing, but it’s easy to overlook that when what is most clear is the crush of work and tasks that seem to bury most people. But if you are willing to step back from the piles of work and select one thing to work on at a time you’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish and how much you can get done.

As a writer, I have to work this way. If I try to multitask I find that I get absolutely nothing done. It’s only when I can select a specific project and turn off everything else and still the noise of other projects and demands that I can make progress. But the second part of what makes it work is this: I don’t have to focus on one thing exclusively all day long.

I’ve found that if I have specific, short deliverables or milestones I can move a project to a certain state, then take a break and shift to a different project and give it my focus. I am dividing my attention, but I’m dividing it into periods of hours, not minutes or seconds. From the perspective at the end of the day I’ve worked on many tasks and I’ve accomplished a great deal. From the perspective of the hour, I’m laser focused on just one thing. Those who attempt to shift their focus more quickly, from minute to minute, are fooling themselves. It is exhausting and counterproductive.

Focus isn’t about steely determination. It is not the result of zen mastery over one’s body and mind. It’s about choices. You can make choices. And you’ll be surprised at how effective just a few simple choices can be in helping you become more productive and do better quality work. Writers must master this. You can do it, too.

I’ll give more of my attention to this topic for the remainder of the week, capped off with a Writing Assignment on capturing and detailing what you want to focus on.

And please feel free to share your experience in dealing with focus and distractions.

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The Divide Your Attention And Stay Focused by Randy Murray, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ann Janzen October 18, 2010 at 7:44 pm

Sometimes I think that multi-tasking is just a euphemism for ADD. It is quite a task to focus completely on one thing at a time.. and it is a gift.

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2 Randy Murray October 19, 2010 at 7:27 am

It’s not really that hard – we just give ourselves permission not to focus. When you sit down to read a book for a hour, that’s focus. The same is true for watching a movie.

Too often we set up our environments to give us multiple simultaneous stimuli. But it’s equally easy to turn them off. We just have to have the will do to so.

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3 Hal Brown October 19, 2010 at 5:39 am

I remain focused for long periods of time, not just for writing but whatever I’m doing. Otherwise, I easily get overwhelmed and half-ass everything I do. Constant noise, interruptions etc are relatively new – I believe a result of current technology. Most of us have too many toys.
Multi-tasking is a myth. Humans do not have that ability. Think of driving and texting.

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4 Randy Murray October 19, 2010 at 7:25 am

I agree – and I’ve said it here before. Multi-tasking is a myth. It can’t be done. What people call multi-tasking is just rapid shifting of focus – and that’s a great way to do bad work.

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