Thanks for your patience during my June break from blogging. I was surprised to learn that I missed the regularity of connecting with the outside world through the written word. And I missed the focus that comes from being accountable to others. It’s good to be back!
And before I move on with this week’s article… Today Canada celebrates its 147th birthday. Happy Canada Day to all my Canadian readers.
Having returned to working in an office environment, I’m adjusting to having less control over the flow and focus of my working day than I had become accustomed to in recent years. Here’s what I’m discovering about how to retain internal control within the landscape of interludes and diversions. I trust it’s useful to you in whatever working environment you find yourself.
dealing with distractions
It’s easy to be distracted. During the work hours of the day, I especially find my attention dispersed in different directions. Often I find myself flitting back and forth between several tasks and as a result, accomplishing very little, very slowly. My solution is to first notice this habit; secondly, recognise it as inefficient; and thirdly, accept that I can accomplish more, in less time when I decisively prioritise.
For an egalitarian who regards everyone as having equal importance, prioritising tasks is not always easy. And since I know that what I do at work has a direct impact on people’s lives and health, prioritising one person over another sometimes presents a dilemma. Prioritising requires postponement. For every task or person I decide to prioritise, the needs of others are inevitably postponed. However, what I also know to be equally true is that people prefer to wait for my undivided attention than feel I am distracted and inattentive. It is a more satisfying experience for both myself and the other person (or people) when I choose to be fully present with them. This includes choosing to be fully present when attending to tasks and decisions that affect their life and health. My focus solely on them and their needs at that time, demonstrates respect for them as a fellow human being.
So, how do I prioritise? Given that this is the trickiest part of the process for me (and one which I’m still refining), this is often where dealing with distractions can fall apart. However, here’s what I’m working on. (1) I measure urgency by assessing potential for harmful impact, i.e. is it possible to eliminate or reduce additional suffering by attending to this person or completing this task immediately? (2) I estimate the dispersion affect, i.e. the number of people who will be affected by my decision to delay or attend to a task. (3) I consider for how long this task or person may already have waited i.e. all else being equal it may be a simple decision based on ‘first come, first served’.
Once I’ve made my decision on which priority to attend to, I focus solely on that task or person by reminding myself that my clients and colleagues deserve my undivided attention and that those who are waiting will have exactly that at a later time.
The advantage of this process is that I’m more attentive, efficient and respectful, simply by being completely focussed and entirely present.
Of course, interruptions happen. And the process of prioritsing needs to be reapplied, often several times in the day. For me, accepting the inevitability of interruptions is ninety percent of the solution in managing their potential impact on my working day. Graciousness and the ability to immediately re-focus are the additional ten percent of the solution.
the myth of multi-tasking
There’s a subculture whose members have adopted great pride in their perceived ability to multi-task. It is a false economy. Attempting to attend to several tasks simultaneously is actually not attending to any task at all. Something will be missed. Someone will feel neglected, unheard or misunderstood. Decisions will be reached that are ineffective or lacking in insight. Inevitably, re-doing becomes necessary or the task is not completed to the highest of standards. At the very least, it’s a less than satisfying experience to be dividing one’s attention between tasks. As much as we humans like to admire the intricate, complex workings of our minds and consciousness, we can truly attend to only one thing at one time. The sooner we accept this and embrace it as a reason to develop attentiveness and focus, the sooner our lives will become more centred, grounded and satisfying.
focus brings freedom
Cultivating concentrated focus is the best way to remain efficient and centred. We can call it one-pointedness, being singularly attentive, developing good concentration; it doesn’t matter how we label it. What matters is practicing it. Activating this principle in our every-day working lives brings a sense of freedom. Freedom that comes from giving ourselves permission to be attentive, present and focussed to only the task at hand. Freedom that comes from giving ourselves permission to return later to whatever we have decided is not currently a priority for our attention.
My departing words to you are borrowed from one of my favourite teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh, as written in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness:
“Whatever the tasks, do them slowly and with ease, in mindfulness. Don’t do any task in order to get it over with. Resolve to do each job in a relaxed way, with all your attention.”