Monotasking and Focus

A big part of author Colin Wright’s lifestyle is his minimalistic approach to life.  Wright travels across the world writing from wherever he finds himself living, and he typically does not settle in one place for more than a year or so at a time.  Without a truly permanent residence he has adopted a minimalist lifestyle, which he believes helps him focus.  In his book Considerations Wright addresses focus with a short essay about what focus is, what leads to greater focus, what distracts from focus, and how we benefit from greater focus.


Wright leads off with an explanation of minimalism expressing his ideas behind a life with less. Living with fewer things to worry about gives him more time and energy to focus on things he finds interesting as opposed to working on managing ‘things’.  He continues with his dialog on focus to explain that another type of minimalism can be very helpful for us on a daily basis,


“Focus can be about mono tasking: doing one thing at a time, and allowing your brain to process everything about what’s happening with that one thing.  Conversations become richer, work is easier, ideas present themselves with greater frequency and ease. This type of focus is momentary, but incredibly effective.”


I think  that we all realize that our multitasking has negative effects on our output, but we defend multitasking by explaining how busy we are and by creating excuses about the timelines and urgency of our products, phone calls, emails, and reports.  A constant pressure to accomplish more in less time forces us to push toward greater productivity, and drives us to perform multiple processes at the same time.  What Wright’s quote shows is that everything about our work becomes more robust when we can monotask and focus on a single thing.  To tie in with Paul Jun’s writing about focus, we can think of focus as a flashlight. If our flashlight of focus is shining at just one thing, then the beam of light directed in one direction will be very strong. But if we use mirror’s to split the beam to two things, the amount of light illuminating either thing will be lessened.  As we subsequently split the beams with more mirrors, we reach a point where the things we focus on become indiscernible because our focus is too fractured and weak.


The other aspect of Wright’s considerations about focus that I am drawn to is the way he explains on the rewards of monotasking and minimalism without attacking the person who is multitasking.  As a millennial I heard all the negative studies and stories about multitasking  and it’s negative effects on my brain.  The news stories and research presented in class always felt like a negative attack against my generation, and in many ways felt like a challenge for me and my peers to continue multitasking to prove the scientific community and the community of skeptic teachers wrong. Wright in his writing simply explains the peace of mind and the areas of life that a single focus strengthen. This is a much more effective way to invite the individual in to a life of monotasking and minimalism.

Working Hard in the 21st Century

In the book Act Accordingly, author Colin Wright provides his thoughts on our hyperconnected and hardworking society.  Wright comments on the pride we have in hard work, and how that has translated into praise for those who work 100 hour weeks and toil through difficult paths to reach their journey. Rather than advocate for the traditional path of ever increasing responsibility and hard work, he encourages a different path, which runs in contrast to our thoughts about always being connected and always working. I have come across the idea through multiple podcasts that I listen to with Debbie Millman in a podcast called Design Matters where she called hard work, long hours, and responding to emails at 3 a.m. “a badge of honor”.  What Wright begins to argue is that this work is not the most useful work, because it is often not the most productive.  He writes, “for some reason we treat ‘hard work’ as if it’s an end unto itself, rather than a means to an end,” showing how focused we are on the hard work we do, and not where that hard work takes us or the outcome of that hard work.  He also writes, “Is it noble to work 100 hours a week to accomplish what could be done in 40? Is it virtuous to spend 40 hours hours on a project that could be delivered in 10?”
I think that once we get into the working world and start to build our careers many of us become super focused on reaching a better position and a better salary and in the end we make sacrifices in our personal life so that our work can be the best. This is certainly not a bad thing, and making sacrifices to help grow in your professional life is important, but Wright is arguing that the sacrifices you make should be temporary. Once you adopt the idea that you must always work hard you will have prepared yourself for success, however, hard work in isolation and hard work that does not provide results is not the best use of your time. It is not worth making personal sacrifices to work hard on something that does not reward nor advance your life in a fully rounded way.  As Debbie Millman put it, having a hard work ‘badge of honor’ does not help you if it means that you are getting less sleep, becoming less productive, and losing the ability to be connected to health, family, and spirituality.
The second part of the quote from Wright shows the better alternative to our ideas of hard work. When we value quantity over quality we look at people with incredibly high work loads and praise them. We look at our colleagues who work super long hours  with praise. Unfortunately, quantity does not always correlate with success. If long hours of work diminish the overall value of the final product and if large workloads delay the final product or fill it with errors, then what did the completion of the large workload accomplish?  Wright is encouraging us to not work in a way that places a high value on the quantity of what we do. His quotes show that productivity versus activity should be our main goal, and that we should value those who are able to complete work with high quality in shorter time frames, rather than focus on dragging things out and appearing to constantly be working in a frenzy.