Each morning my son races past me as I open his bedroom door. He’s a focused little chap, bundling his way into the bathroom, his dinosaur pyjamas a yellow and navy blur as he races towards the small wicker basket that houses the objects of his curiosity.
A colourful range of small plastic sea creatures. Each one requires his undivided attention. They need to be named, examined, then lined up neatly across the rim of the bath. A giant barrel sponge takes pride of place amongst pink sharks, tentacled beasts and killer whales.
My son is a master at managing his own attention. He’s fiercely protective of his sea creatures, their environment and this critical morning ritual. Occasionally I try to interject, with suggestions of breakfast, playtime, books or other things that might flit across my brain at any given moment. Yet, resolutely, firmly he reminds me not to interrupt him. This firmness is delivered via a transfixed gaze and total, uncompromised immersion in his task. He protects his space, his time and completes his ritual to the very best of his ability. It’s quite brilliant.
And it has a name. Monotropism.
This describes when a person can only easily focus on a single task or interest, as opposed to polytropism, where your attention flits between many different interests. Total focus. It sounds utterly marvellous. Who wouldn’t want the ability to lose themselves in a task, perform it brilliantly and lose all sense of time?
Well, as it turns out...all of us! Our working world does almost everything it can to scupper our focus and derail our ability to perform well. Polytropism is king. That’s the state we celebrate, promote and excuse. For some reason, we’ve come to view the ability to focus as a strange, other-worldly exception rather than a desired norm.
In the statement below, which of these scenarios sounds more appealing?
“XXX people are more likely to give all their attention to one thing, while YYY people tend to distribute their attention broadly - it’s more thinly spread, more available everywhere.”
I suspect that you have to consider your response. You’ve been presented with a choice between attention and inattention.
Yet with the missing words visible below, our response is likely to shift.
“Autistic people are more likely to give all their attention to one thing, while non-autistic people tend to distribute their attention broadly - it’s more thinly spread, more available everywhere.”
Of course I recognise the underlying need to manage different levels of input and respond to the world around us. Yet I felt - I feel - that by lionising multi-tasking we are worshipping a false idol. It’s our default position, but that doesn’t make it right.
Monotropism is not a fault to be corrected. Rather, many of our current problems lie in our inability to manage our own attention.
Why do we undervalue our ability to focus? What is so useful about shallow work? Why do we overlook the data demonstrating that our inability to focus is causing our businesses and the people who work within them to be less productive and more stressed?
We all too readily cite the culture of immediate response and spreading our attention thinly and impulsively as something to which we should aspire. Immediacy makes us feel connected and valued...in the short-term at least. This Tinder-esque approach towards our attention and our work serves our desire for immediate gratification yet has longer-term detrimental effects on our health and the quality of our output.
Our working rhythm of flitting attention, distraction, plate-spinning and connectivity is a modern-day example of The Emperor's New Clothes. We know that immediacy is - on the whole - unhelpful, unproductive and unnecessary. Yet still we decline to point and laugh at the sheer absurdity of modern industry’s addiction to the concept.
Is it because we should simply feel grateful to have a job? Or that it’s too big a problem for us to change on our own? Or that we will be penalised for our tardiness, with a colleague snagging a promotion that was awarded due to their immediate responsiveness rather than our own thoughtful, slower approach?
These are legitimate concerns. Yet, unless a bold few decide to point and laugh at the portly, wasteful emperor of distraction then he’ll continue to wander round our streets, dictating lamentable working practices. Unless we point and laugh, our ability to focus will continue to erode.
So here’s an idea. Next time you write an email asking for some work, try to avoid the pull to demand a response ASAP. It is within your gift to allow someone else - a client, a direct report, a team member - the time and space to focus fully on the project in hand. You can help someone put all their mental eggs into one basket for a while.
The conclusion of your email could look a little like this:
I don’t want an immediate response. I’d love it if you could take the time to think, pause, ponder and build on your initial reactions. Your brain is incredible and I want to give you the space to focus.
As each lockdown day and night passes, many of us will be experiencing inescapable surges of worry. We feel powerless to halt such thoughts from flitting through our brains. What would you give to still your restless mind at times like this? What would you give for the opportunity to lose yourself in occasional moments of focus, doing one thing, right now, utterly brilliantly?
These questions inevitably transport me back to the image of my son methodically sorting through his sea creatures. One by one. Focused and unhurried. And I realise that he needs to know something important. Something that the world is currently unwilling to tell him.
Focus is the skill that can make us feel better. It can make us better at our jobs. It increases the quality of our relationships and strengthens the resilience of our minds.
Monotropism isn’t a weakness. It’s his superpower.
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