Celebrating the Art of Focus
Multi-tasking became a common practice just as I was starting my career about 30 years ago. In many ways, the concept served me as I was working, setting up house, juggling relationships, and having children. One can’t do it all, but I did try hard.
I recall reading a newspaper article in the early 1990s about productivity. I was looking for advice on how to be more productive in my work day so I could have more free time in the evenings. Instead, the article focused on those few, empty moments in my day that I could devote to a task. Dictate my grocery list while driving, keep my bills in my purse so I could pay them while in line at the grocery store, call my mom while I cleaned the kitchen. And all this before I had a cell phone that connected me to everything and everyone all the time. The article made me feel panicked. Yes, I could be more productive, as long as I never needed a moment to myself.
Then in 2011, I traveled to France on my first sourcing trip with Elsie Green. The French do not multi-task. They sit with their cafés, they enjoy their lunches and when they are engaged in a conversation with you, they are concentrating on you. On that first trip, I asked for a cafe créme to-go in a bistro and the server simply said “non.” Perhaps it was my French, but I think it was more that she rejected my lifestyle choice.
It was in France that I re-discovered the joy of a long walk, a long meal, or a long chat. The magic to productivity was not multi-tasking, it was learning to do one thing at a time, very well, and if there’s not time to do the rest, fantastique!
That focus translated to other aspects of my life: cooking with fewer, but better, ingredients, investing in fewer, but better, items in my wardrobe, committing to fewer, but harder, workouts and sometimes saying “non.”
And I learned to accept fewer invitations, and to be completely present at those events I attended. I didn’t have a fear of missing out, I experienced a joy of missing out. I learned to immerse myself in the locations, museums, sights and food when I was traveling rather than worrying about what I was missing at home.
Now maybe I go a bit too far. I’ve turned all the notifications off on my phone, I hide my phone in the closet while I sleep and I set timers when I want to focus on something for 20 minutes or an hour. One of my daughters tried to call me the other morning and got a text instead - “call you in 12 minutes? I’m reading the news.” But when my timer went off and I called her back in 12 minutes, she had my full attention.
Like meditation, yoga or painting, focus is a lifelong practice. If one is dedicated, one can always improve. And the first step is in recognizing the value of the practice. I think my friends and family members would all agree that I have a long way to go.
But the transition from multi-tasking to doing one thing well has been transformative in many ways. My cooking has improved immensely now that I’m not trying fold laundry and get in a quick 60 second plank while my diced onions burn. And I fill my calendar in thoughtful ways rather than just saying yes to everything and hoping it all works out. Or saying no to everything because I'm overwhelmed. I have brunch plans with my friend Pallavi next weekend and I am looking forward to enjoying a leisurely morning with her rather than squeezing it in between this and that.
For more thoughts on quality time, read our post