The great writer Charles Dickens once revealed what he believed to be the secret of success: Whichever task you’re doing right now, however large or small, treat it as if it’s the most important task in the world upon which all depends.
Powerful advice, if implemented! Too many of us take to our tasks with an oppressive sense of stress and guilt: Doing this means NOT doing that other thing that’s in my inbox. And then the related thought: Getting this done will do no more than free me up for the NEXT damn thing. And so we never really give ourselves fully to the task at hand. Everything takes on a merely relative value, with the result that our working life becomes an endless column of boxes to be fretfully ticked. Misery!
What Dickens is telling us to do is to trick our brains and act as if no other pressures bear down. You don’t sit down to dinner thinking of your next meal, and the one after that. No—you focus on what’s in front of you. Why not apply the same logic to work tasks? Thinking about all the other tasks while doing this one will not improve your performance of this one—or the other ones. It will just drain you of energy, make you impatient to be done, and reduce your sense of achievement once it is accomplished. Better far to optimise your attention to the current thing, and then bring the same strategy to bear on the thing after that, and the thing after that.
As I’ve noticed over the years in encounters with really high achievers, there is a broader ethos behind this. The go-getters tend to have an almost ruthless talent for attention compartmentalisation. No matter what happens to be in front of them, they give it their undivided attention. You’re chatting with them, and they don’t do that annoying thing of looking like their mind is on something else (e.g. a contact they want to touch base with at the far end of the room!). Watch them socialising, and their demeanour will tell you they have well and truly switched off from work stuff. They’re in a meeting, and they have a ground rule that nothing but nothing is to interrupt it. They understand the secret: laser-sharp focus is less stressful than any hedge-betting spreading of energy. Not that they just drift wherever the tide pulls them: they make hard-nosed scheduling decisions based on priorities, and then they trust to the rightness of what each hour brings and demands of them.
Imagine someone jogging while reading a Jane Austen novel, and you have an image of what muddled goals look like. Go for the damn jog, then read the damn book! Trying to make the two activities simultaneous will only deprive you of a flow experience with either. Have you ever seen a child immersed in play, oblivious to all else including the ticking of time’s clock? Well, that’s what real flow looks like, and it’s available to you too. A powerful alternative to the frenetic ‘busyness’ that has no appeal for those who mean real business.
The same principle applies, by the way, to problem-solving. One of the trickiest challenges I often find myself facing with a new client is to get them to focus on one thing at a time. We human beings really do have a gift for disempowering ourselves by allowing discrete problems contaminate one another to form a toxic sludge that leaves us immobilised in helplessness and pessimism. It’s like a clock trying to tick to seven different time zones at once. Slow down, you move too fast—and end up moving nowhere. Separate out the issues, and take a calm look at each in its turn. Just as you will be surprised by how productive you can be at work if you take things one at a time, so too will you uncover brilliant insights into your career situation if you apply the same principle.