I am interested in a lot of different things. There is little chance that I could pick something and stick with it exclusively for the rest of my life. Those who know me personally know that I am a creature of ritual and repetition—I can have the exact same breakfast for years, for instance—but that doesn’t apply to my work, research, or education.
With that said, while I am performing a specific task, I try to focus only of that task. In a broad sense, I attempt to live in the moment. More specifically, I do not multitask.
Why? Because true multitasking is impossible, and the mere attempt of multitasking is an injustice to both tasks.
Now, don’t get me wrong. We humans can breathe and walk at the same time. This isn’t a debate of multitasking within a biological system. It’s simply an observation of my own working habits, and with a bit of presumption, probably your working habits too.
Being good at more than one thing is not multitasking. Multitasking just means “distraction.” You’re not answering emails and watching a movie with your kids. You are are distracted from both tasks simultaneously, or more focused on one than the other, trading off from time to time.
Early on, I learned that multitasking is a terrible idea. I never fell for the fad. And I owe it to one man: the arrogant component to the greatest television show in history—quite possibly the future too—Major Charles Emerson Winchester III from M*A*S*H.
My epiphany occurred while watching a rerun of episode 125, “Fallen Idol” (September 27, 1977). You remember. It’s that episode when Hawkeye recommends Radar go to town to find female companionship. In transit, Radar is injured and Hawkeye feels guilty, having sent Radar on the adventure. Hawkeye gets drunk that night, and must excuse himself from the operating room the next day when he almost vomits on/in a patient.
During the episode, Charles—still a new character—is washing his hands rather thoroughly before surgery. Hawkeye says, “You only have to kill the germs, Charles, you don’t have to stick around for the funeral.”
Dr. Winchester responds to Hawkeye’s wit with incredible insight: “I do one thing, I do it very well, and then I move on.”
Later in the scene, Hawkeye asks Colonel Potter why he prefers to wait for Winchester to do a tricky bowel resection when the chief surgeon and BJ are ready now. Charles dries his hands and interrupts, “It’s because I do one thing, I do it very well, and then I move on.”
Now, I’m not so arrogant to say that 1) I am always focused solely on the task at hand, and 2) that I do everything “very” well. But I do remind myself of Winchester’s advice whenever I lose focus, along with David Ogden Stier’s trademark fake accent, and to do my best, I practice Kaizen.
Kaizen is the art of continuous improvement; another philosophy I aim for, but often miss. The concept is that if you do your best at something today, you can do a little better tomorrow. With practice, today’s 100% is tomorrow’s 90%.
I try to apply Dr. Winchester’s creed to every aspect of my life. If I am going to spend time with my kids, that’s what I do. Mentally, I am nowhere else. When I am responding to an email, I am totally focused on that one message. When I’m working on a product image or shooting a DVD, that’s all I am focused on at the time. While I am writing this article… dang it! I am listening to the news in the background and looking up now and again while my wife and kids play Monopoly.
See? It doesn’t always work. It isn’t a rule. It’s a goal.
Do one task at a time. Do it the very best you can. And then move on to the next task. Even when those tasks are just for fun. You owe it to yourself to not be distracted when you’re just sitting there relaxing.