Carving out the time to allow for singular focus is a necessity. For your brain to function well, to be creative, innovative, and sharp. There is no question. It is necessary for your health, your sanity, and your career.
Research shows that multi-tasking is BS. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT, sums it up for Fortune: “Don’t try to multi-task. It ruins productivity, causes mistakes, and impedes creative thought. Many of you are probably thinking, ‘but I’m good at it!’ Sadly, that’s an illusion. As humans, we have a very limited capacity for simultaneous thought.”
The way the brain works, when you multi-task you’re actually making small shifts back and forth between singular tasks, reducing your efficiency and productivity. So it’s not multi-tasking, it’s what I call fast-switching. Stopping one thing, then starting another; paying attention to one thing while stopping paying attention to another. Some people pride themselves on being very good at multi-tasking, and they may be if their goal is to be good at multi-tasking, as in juggling a lot of things at once. But even a juggler, who may be able to keep four balls in the air while riding a unicycle, can’t actually look at each ball carefully, individually, and analyze its shape, even how it moves, or develop new creative ideas to improve its aerodynamics.
When you multi-task, you’re dumbing yourself down. You’re reducing your capacity to someone who is very good at flinging their jobs around in the air but can’t really give any of them enough attention to do them well. If you choose to multi-task, you’re essentially choosing to suck at a bunch of things at once. This is especially true if you are trying to be creative, or hell, actually smart about anything.
Trying to solve a problem or come up with a new way to do something? Step 1: Give up the fast-switching and replace it with focus. Or, as I am known to say, Shields Up.
I know it’s hard to work on only one thing when you’re in a world with thousands of inbound missiles. It’s not just the insanity of texting and driving or the miserable parenting move of trying to sort through your email while hearing what your kids did at school today. Those suck, of course, as tempting as they are for most of us. But there are also the big brain moments, when you really need to be on your game, sparkly bright, efficient, clear, and innovative, but it can feel impossible to step away from the clutter of your life.
For me, it's Shields Up. Meaning, I create a workspace for myself, which is akin to the library where I went as a kid, with a clear, open place to focus and work, surrounded by books, and librarians shushing the noisy (yes, which sometimes was me). I also have other places where I can go and really think clearly. The shower. The car. And before I got too old and joint-challenged to jog outside, that was very fertile mind space. An elliptical inside just doesn’t compare.
My Life-Changing Jog
About five years ago, I was in a period of being burned out and feeling mediocre. While our restaurants were doing well and thriving, I was still also running our consulting firm. We were using the same management structure as we had been for six years, and I couldn’t see clearly what the problem was, but I knew I just wasn’t happy. Aspects of work, especially consulting, started to feel like chores, and I was confused about how I could be a partner in my own company yet have classic feelings of worker dissatisfaction. I knew I was having these thoughts and feelings, but I just kept grinding. I actually had no idea WTF I was going to do. I didn’t even think of “change,” because I never really stopped to “think.” I just had feelings, and I suppose my subconscious was trying to work on the problem on its own.
So, I was jogging around Casco Bay in Portland, ME during a visit to my sister Rachel’s house, and in my mind’s eye I started looking across all the work I was doing. I could suddenly see very clearly what work I loved and what work I didn’t. As I started to shove the work I didn’t like away, I began to envision the lovely little pile that was left as a rock-solid foundation for a new role and a new structure. In this imagined company, I saw myself and my lifelong mentor and partner, Mike Vucurevich, elevating our team to replace us in specific roles so we could realistically do more of what we loved doing.
My mind was able to focus. Perhaps the work my subconscious had been doing diligently for some time and trying to push up through the many distractions finally had the space to surface… the bay became my whiteboard where I drew the mental picture of our roles, the transitions required in our consultancy so that we could immerse into our own restaurants. Hurdles evaporated as my imaginary whiteboard allowed for solutions to be drawn. By the time I got around the bay and was heading up the hill to Rachel’s house, I felt joyous, invigorated, and crystal clear. After the vacation, I came back to work and put that entire plan in place. Since then, our company has tripled in size and my happiness has tripled right along with it.
If I hadn’t had that run or didn’t allow myself any time to step out of the fray of my life, I may still be slogging it out with all the crap that felt like it was sinking me. This is a life-changing instance, but each of us have smaller examples throughout our days, where we reduce our brain power by believing we can really do more than one thing at a time.
Single-Task or Even No-Task Mindset
I have talked a lot in my classes and with my team about the importance of having time to single-task, or even no-task, to allow your brain to think freely and clearly. If you create time and space, the brain wants to do good work. The trick is making space, creating clearings.
Albert Einstein nailed it when he said, “I think 99 times and find nothing. I stop thinking, swim in silence, and the truth comes to me.”
I recently had another aha moment after jumping on our backyard trampoline with my youngest son, Finn. We were lying on the trampoline looking at the clouds overhead. We were discussing what we saw in the shapes. There were long moments of quiet, just staring up at the sky. There in the clouds, I saw each of our restaurants, and how they could begin to support each other. It just appeared literally out of thin air right there in the clouds. I came off that trampoline, set Finny in front of his Xbox to play Fortnite, and I drew out the thoughts that came to me. In front of me, I had produced a new intercompany communication model.
It only happened because I made room for it in my mind.
Consider ways you can create more staring-at-the-clouds trampoline time in your life. Or how you can build your own library. Or how YOU can best put Shields Up. Or any other space you can let your brain do its big, amazing brainwork, undistracted by emails, buzzing phones, and the folly of multi-tasking.