by Greg Lewin
How many things are really that important to you? I have always found that the answer for most people is - way too many. In my experience very few things matter. But identifying them is critically important because those things that matter, matter a lot. In the wonderful movie “City Slickers” Billy Crystal plays Mitch, a 39 year old urbanite struggling with a midlife crises. In search of answers he is convinced by his friends to join them at a dude ranch to give himself the time and space needed to think. At the ranch Mitch meets Curly, an authentic cowboy who exhibits the strength and character that Mitch seems to have lost. Curly is a man of action, not words, but he sees that Mitch is really hurting and offers him the following advice. “Do you know what the secret to life is? One thing. Just one thing.” Mitch asks, “What's the one thing?” Curly answers, “That is for you to figure out.”
Answering this powerful question draws you close to the core of your being. In my family this was not advice - this was marching orders. Meaning came from purpose and purpose was a product of relentless focus. Distractions were simply a waste of time and energy. Although this sounds a bit harsh, I must admit, I liked it. It made life simpler and easier to manage. Even though I found this life choice appealing, boiling my list down to just one thing was never really possible. Perhaps it was a product of circumstance. Being away from it all, like Curly, certainly makes life far less complicated. Nevertheless, I have always been good at narrowing my focus and channeling my efforts. And this has proven to be a reliable advantage in all aspects of my life.
These days 'focus' is a hot topic for conversation. Apparently, human attention spans have reached frighteningly low levels. One large study reported that our ability to focus is now less than that of a goldfish. If there is any truth to this claim our place in the food chain may ultimately be in danger. To make matters worse, our habit of multitasking is hastening the rapid decline of this once valued skill and this poses further troubling questions. If our capacity to focus is compromised, then so is our sense of awareness, because attention is the engine that drives awareness. If our awareness, more specifically speaking, our awareness of self is impaired, then we will experience increased difficulty assessing our strengths and weaknesses. We will increasingly lose track of what we truly want and desire and in so doing, chase so many of the wrong things. And we will also find it increasingly difficult to connect with those we share our lives with because we will fail to fully understand the many messages they are sharing with us. With our attention diminished and our self-awareness impaired we will increasingly feel anxious, stressed, isolated, and out of control. And according to many of the world health organizations that publish on these subjects, that is exactly what is happening, at accelerating rates, all over the globe.
Finding ways to arrest the decline and rebuild our shrinking attention spans is an urgent matter. Two simple suggestions can be extremely helpful. The first step is kind of obvious. If multitasking is a problem then try doing one thing at a time. Not terribly hard to do if we can dedicate periods of time to this exercise and slowly build up a tolerance for this old school art. The next step is a bit more challenging - put down your phone - the prime suspect in the case of our missing attention spans. This challenge is so much harder to do because billions of dollars of research and advertising have been invested to make make you think that your life depends on these things. There has been a lot written about these two steps. What I want to do is offer a third step.
Don't just put down your phone and focus on one thing at a time, turbo charge your results by following Curly's advice. Take the time to find out what really matters to you and then increasingly turn your attention to just those things. When you take the time to learn what is important and align your priorities accordingly, the distraction of your phone is no longer a challenge and focus comes easily. It's like dieting by only keeping healthy food in your house rather than forcing yourself to do the hard work of constantly resisting the urge. If there is nothing wrong to eat, then all you do is eat right. When you think about work, family, relationships, goals and aspirations, drill down and ask yourself what really matters. And then when you find those answers ask yourself why do those things matter so much. There are no easy answers. Everyone must walk their own path. However, understanding the benefits of such a practice may inspire you to devote more energy to the task.
The advantages of single tasking over multitasking are well documented. Lower error rates and faster completion times translate into greater productivity. And the benefits of putting down your phone require little proof because most of us realize that our phones are the thing that is most responsible for creating our addiction to multitasking. The reason focusing on things that matter can be as personally impactful as either of these first two steps can be summed up in one word – risk. When we do things that matter we are, by definition, taking great personal risk. And when we take risk our entire physiology leaps into action.
When you take risk your blood pressure rises, your heart rate increases, your muscles tense, and your respiratory rate accelerates preparing you to act. From a practical point of view your energy increases, your focus increases, your stamina increases, your access to memories increases, and all of your senses come alive. These attributes translate into greater self awareness and a greater awareness of the totality of experiences and observations present in our environments. This heightened perception of context and circumstances is the special sauce that enables you to perform at your highest levels. Understanding what is possible when you a truly tuned in will open the door to improved timing and performance creating the productivity boom you are chasing.
Do you remember when you walked across a crowded party to introduce yourself to a beautiful woman. There were no distractions. You could feel your heart beat, your skin tingle and the subtleties of your stride and posture. You were aware of her body language, the tone of her voice and the intentions of all those around her. You were in the moment because the moment really meant something to you. And although it may not have turned out as you wished, you knew that every fiber of your being was poured into that moment and you felt completely alive.
Focusing on those things of great meaning energizes all of your inherent gifts. Unfortunately, in our digital age many of us have devalued our physical intelligence, putting all our chips on our intellectual and emotional intelligence. This is a mistake. There is a highly evolved physical intelligence that our species has relied on to survive for the vast majority of our human existence. To think that this evolutionary effort can be dismissed or compensated for is wrong thinking. Let me share a recent experience.
It was a beautiful evening in New York City. Following a wonderful dinner, my wife and I were strolling down Park Avenue taking it all in. After walking a few blocks a sudden and powerful feeling came over me. It felt as if I were running my finger down a venetian blind from head to toe, and I could feel my mood change. In the past I may have dismissed such a feeling, attributing it to a poor sleep or possibly something I ate, but this time was different. I no longer processed information that way. So before I responded to this change I surveyed my surroundings. As I began to look around I saw out of the corner of my eye, a block or two away, an office building that had been the source of a lot of pain and anger in the past. Reflexively I said to myself, "You don't have to worry about that any longer," and just as quickly as the bad feelings came they disappeared and my mood shifted back from anxious to happy and my wife was completely unaware that any of this had happened.
My body had alerted me to an old emotional wound that needed healing. And if I chose to ignore that signal, and bury my feeling, I bet that our evening would have taken a turn for the worse. My wife may have said, "Wasn't that meal great," and I may have replied, "I didn't really like it." She would have been surprised, I would have gotten defensive and everything would have changed. Who hasn't said something unexpected or unkind, that after further careful consideration, you have no idea why you ever made such a remark. We all possess an incredible spectrum of physical, mental and emotional abilities, but few of us put ourselves in position to take full advantage of them. When we are truly self-aware, tuned in to all the inter-related gifts available to us, we put ourselves in position to make choices rather than having those choices made for us.
This story is so important for two specific reasons. First, if you can learn to become aware of the full spectrum of information that is at your disposal, you can begin to learn those things that truly matter. In this case, I had thought those past issues were no longer of personal importance, but my body told me otherwise. Second, if you really devote yourself to the exercise of finding out what matters most and then, having come to conclusions, feel nothing when engaged in these matters, then perhaps your answers have not gone deep enough. Risk is a complicated comprehensive kind of experience. And it is so because nothing matters more than those things that pose threats or offer opportunities. And when you open your vision of threat and opportunity to include the less obvious, but nonetheless important experiences that also populate our lives, such as, warm relationships, good health, a selfless act or learning, and then turn your focus toward them, then distractions are far easier to dispatch and focus easier to embrace.
Our bodies can provide us with the signals that help us know when to chase and when to run. When to seek opportunity and when let it pass. When to take risk and when to be cautious. When to invest time and effort and when not. When to trust and when to connect. We are incredible machines when given the opportunity to truly perform. .
If you can discover those things of great meaning and consequence, both to you and those you share your life with, and then focus the majority of your attention on just those things (one thing at a time), you can unleash the productivity and potential you have been seeking.