multi3Spoiler alert – no new science, breakthrough research or great new insight here – just a personal validation about learning. This is something I think I knew as a student, but somehow forgot (or ignored?) once I got into the demands of my career in particular and life in general. The need to keep many balls in the air in my work, and the emergence of tools and technologies with the power to enable multi-tasking, led me down a somewhat destructive path.

So, consider this post my personal confession and mea culpa – and hopefully, my commitment to focus more.

Lessons from Life

Regular readers or long-term followers of this blog (and bless y’all for that!) know that my two favorite hobbies are scuba diving and playing guitar/bass guitar, and that I sometimes draw on these passions to bring some learning or insight to the world of IT organizational performance.

While I started playing guitar when I was about 10, I gave it up when I went to university, having accepted that I was not going to ‘make it’ as a professional musician, and therefore needed to get a professional degree. I got back into music about 15 years ago, so much of my professional development as a “musician” (and I use that term very loosely, with tongue planted firmly in cheek) has come in the last 15 years.

I started diving 19 years ago, so again, the learning was as a middle-aged adult. Let me take the scuba learning experience first. You tend not to multi-task as a scuba diver – especially while you are learning. This is an easy conclusion to reach – life depends upon it! As a learning diver, there’s quite a lot to think about, and much of it has to do with avoiding death or some very nasty injury (exploding lungs or eyeballs are difficult conditions to treat!) Once you have the experience, it is fine to learn how to handle an underwater camera rig, and how to take wonderful underwater photographs or videos – but you tend not to do that until you have mastered basic scuba skills. So, my scuba learning experience was very much single-tasking. Lots of deep focus (excuse the pun).

I had a similar experience with motorcycling. Again, I had a motorbike as a teenager, but had stopped riding until about 20 years ago, when I got back into it. I took the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course which taught me a lot I did not know, including:

  1. Most car, bus and truck drivers have not seen you on a motorcycle.
  2. Some of those that do see you want to kill you!
  3. There’s a mental mantra that helps keep motorcyclists alive – Scan, Identify, Predict, Decide and Act. Survival means keeping a total focus on this – a behavior I still practice today, even when driving a car.  It becomes a kind of zen thing – how many potentially dangerous situations can you see coming and be ready to deal with them?

Lessons from the Performing Arts

So, I got somewhat serious about music about 15 years ago, and really serious about 9 years ago. Without going into the reasons why, I recently found myself in a situation where I had to learn the bass guitar parts to five incredibly long and complex progressive rock compositions (by the band Yes, for those who care about such things!) Among the five was one piece of over 20 minutes duration, with many key changes, changes in time signature, bass solos, very fast runs and a host of challenges for a mere mortal like me! And I had to perform these in front of a large audience of Yes fans (where ‘fan’ = ‘fanatic’), in front of members of the band Yes and, in rehearsals, with members of Yes!

I started with my usual practice routine, but it wasn’t working, or at least, it wasn’t working quickly enough. After a couple of weeks practice for 1 hour each evening, I thought hard about why I was not making the progress I needed and was expecting. The reason came to me when I was reading a blog post on multi-tasking – and I realized that as important as this performance was to me, I wasn’t approaching my practice with the right mindset and focus. I was working hard at trying to ‘get through’ the music, rather than feel it, understand it and really learn it. My head had been full of other issues – distractions, mostly, and I allowed them to distract me.

I determined to take a different approach.

  1. I needed a clear break between my work and my practice. In some cases that was 15 minutes meditation. In other cases it was time in my gym to exercise, or take a walk.
  2. Each time I started a practice session, I had a specific learning objective – one small piece that I would loop and play over and over, at first slowly, then gradually coming up to performance speed. I would keep a record of what I was working on and how I was doing.
  3. I turned off all other distractions – email, cell phone, office phone, etc.
  4. My mantra was FOCUS!

Within a couple of weeks I saw real progress. Focus was paying off. I was seeing patterns in the music I had not seen before – patterns that helped with the learning. I was seeing patterns in my playing – how one particularly tricky solo was actually in just 2 playing positions on the guitar neck. Once I visualized the musical patterns and the playing positions, everything clicked, and suddenly, playing that solo was as natural as it could be – suddenly it all made sense!

Are You Really Into the Job You Are Supposed to be Doing?

The reality is that most of us have got into the habit of multi-tasking – talking on the phone while sending emails, for example. And more often than not, our work is suffering. If it is routine, purely physical work, that might be ok. If it is more complex, that might not be ok. If it involves learning, it almost certainly is not ok.

If, heaven forbid, you needed brain surgery, how would you feel if you knew the brain surgeon was going to do the surgery while checking Facebook, talking with a golf buddy and responding to emails?

Do yourself a favor – stop trying to move so fast, and start trying to move effectively and deliberately.

Image courtesy of Discover Your Awesomeness

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