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To succeed, put interruptions on hold

Nov 19, 2006 Success, Sunday Nation

You’re working on a very important report, and you’re behind schedule. An e-mail marked ‘urgent reply needed’ pops up on your computer screen. You start reading it, and see that it does indeed need your immediate attention. You start working on a response. There’s a knock on the door, and a colleague walks in. You had promised to help her complete an assessment that must go out today. You abandon your e-mail and sit down with her. The phone rings. It’s your boss, asking about that important report…

Isn’t this what modern life has become for most working people these days? Our typical day is spent flitting from task to task, dividing our attention, keeping several balls in the air at the same time, like circus jugglers. This is the disease of our age, which has been aptly labelled ‘continuous partial attention’ by Linda Stone, a former Microsoft executive. We are all doing it: watching TV while surfing the Web and simultaneously writing a text message. Or reading the paper while listening to the i-Pods and trying to talk to our children.

Thomas Friedman, renowned author and columnist on the New York Times, calls it the Age of Interruption: we have gone from the Iron Age to the Industrial Age to the Information Age to the Age of Interruption. It is the malady of modernity, says he: we are messaging, calling and spamming each other to madness. As attentions spans shrink and ideas are killed during conception, we may all be diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder. A declining civilisation may be our reward.

What is behind this? The first culprit is very definitely the modern management fallacy called ‘multi-tasking’. We wear our ability to do many things simultaneously very proudly, like a badge on our lapels. Only wimps and losers do things one at a time. Top dogs do it all, all the time. That’s what marks out a leader. The generalist is the general.

We even use it in our greetings these days. “How are you?” I ask. “Busy-busy”, you answer. Or: “Keeping busy”; “Too busy”; “No time to think”.

Such arrant nonsense. How can spreading your meagre intellectual resources more and more thinly over more and more tasks be a good thing to do? Are great corporations built, Nobel prizes won, countries developed by doing less of more? Life’s real high-achiever will tell you something quite different: that the mind is a like a lens focusing energy, and it is at its most effective when that energy is focused onto a single point.

We have to learn, quite simply, to do things one at a time. When you’re writing the report, write the report. When you’re looking at e-mails, look at e-mails. When you’re talking to someone, focus on what they’re saying, not on whether you remembered to log out. When you’re eating, eat. Undivided attention is the secret of success. And when it’s time to sleep, switch everything off and…you guessed it, sleep.

Too much connectivity is the enemy of focused attention. We are all wired up these days to be on call: e-mails, SMS messages, phone calls, message beeps can get to us anywhere, anytime. We’re in touch ’24-7′, we like to brag, brandishing our latest gadgets to prove it. We are always ‘in’, never ‘out’. On top of that, modern bosses like to operate an ‘open door’ policy: the chief is always available. Just walk in.

A question: when do you actually think? In between all that noise and clatter? Amidst all those interruptions? If that’s when you do it, forget about your effectiveness. Bosses are now waking up to the fact that clear thinking remains a core skill for the business leader – it never went away. It just got drowned out by all the noise of the Blackberries and i-Pods. So when do you do it?

A survey conducted recently by Corporate Board Member magazine found that directors are waking up to the fact that thinking time is a scarce resource, and are forcing themselves to switch everything off simply to think. Many are blocking off chunks of the day where no interruptions are permitted. To do what? Why, to think. Some are resorting to yoga, to meditation, to leisure activities as a legitimate part of their work. As the magazine put it, the real player these days may be the one who’s just walked in from a walk or a sail. I would go further: to spot the real achiever, look out for the person who’s calm, collected and paying attention to the task at hand, not the one frazzled from too much activity.

You cannot write a book, paint a masterpiece or compose a symphony in tiny little bits of attention. At some stage you will have to lose yourself in the task. The same applies to crafting your company’s strategy, or making a breakthrough in any field of endeavour. You have to spend the time, and you have to give it the attention. Too many of us are doing the precise opposite: dividing the mind and chasing after every conceivable distraction, and getting thoroughly exhausted in the process. All for nothing, for mediocrity is the only result.

Thomas Friedman discovered this in the Peruvian rain forest, where for four days he had no Internet access or cell-phone signal. And he found himself able to actually stop and think, and to see the world through a new lens. He paid attention to trees and vines, to sunlight and insects, to chirps and cackles. He was disconnected, and came back, he reports, cleansed.

That is how it is with all the best things in our lives. Look back on your major achievements and you will undoubtedly notice that the things you did best were the things you did with real concentration. And that your worst mistakes were made when you had too many balls in the air at the same time.

Without focused attention, life is a series of interrupted events. Everything is sporadic, episodic, intermittent. We are thwarted every time we try to do anything meaningful. We are frustrated and angry, and complete everything later, in a rush, without due thought or attention. Our life does not move to a point; it is in fact a series of ever-widening circles.

It is indeed possible to divide up every single day. There is a time to sleep, and a time to be awake. A time to eat, and a time to read. A time to speak, and a time to be silent. A time to work, and a time to rest. A time to observe, and a time to interact. A time to listen, and a time to be listened to. There is all the time in the world to do everything we want – but not at the same time.

Great thoughts may come to you in the middle of breakfast, and excellent ideas may well pop up as you wrestle with the touchpad on your phone. But they have to be developed another time, in silence and with deep reflection. We will not achieve anything amidst the din and commotion of our too-connected lives.

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