we have all been schooled in the value of staying focused, narrowing our focus, choosing one thing to do well, and on. Well – there is certainly wisdom here. Within most disciplines there is so much to grasp intellectually, and then to apply in practice, over and over again, to achieve mastery. How can anyone imagine to commit to more than one creative discipline, for example, with any hope of being able to devote the time and energy necessary to achieve a respectable level of accomplishment.
We tend to idolize those individuals who have both the means and the patience to scribble, or type, or paint, from morning until night. How productive they are! If only I could have that tenacity, that single-mindedness, that rabid drive!
But we are not all wired the same, and the wiring does not stay the same either. You may spend the rest of your days on earth struggling to achieve this widely held ideal of intense, narrow focus for long stretches of time, and find yourself no further along creatively and productively. Take a moment to think about one of your best pieces – the one you think is the best, at any rate. What were the conditions surrounding the creation of that work? What was your general frame of mind during that period of creation? What were your involvements. What was your pace? Perhaps you will recall that you were involved with a variety of activities and responsibilities during the creative gestation of this favorite piece. You may recall that you allowed yourself to dispense with self-imposed deadlines, that you perhaps were working on a few projects at the same time. Perhaps you were also investing some energy into marketing, into general intellectual development. Maybe you were simply holding down a part-time or full-time survival job.
There are individuals throughout history that have demonstrated a model for creative and intellectual life based less on extreme single focus than on maximizing use of time generally, and on integrating various seemingly unrelated aspects of life in ways which propelled all endeavors forward. The renowned 15th century artist, Leonardo Da Vinci, made important contributions to the fields of anatomy, civil engineering, optics, hydrodynamics. Moses Maimonides, a 12th century giant of religious thought, was also deeply immersed in the sciences and was a practicing physician.
What was the secret to these individuals’ capacity to produce at such a high level in so many diverse fields? It could not have been single-minded pursuit, day in and day out, of one narrow discipline. Rather, it must have been a combination of time management, integration of activities – connecting the dots between seemingly disparate daily experiences, and finally, chipping away slowly at numerous projects over the various fields every day.
In some strange way, it seems these greats were masters of staying unfocused! Theirs was the ability to shift gears continuously throughout the day, and to recognize obvious and subtle relationships between disparate activities which actually nurtured all of their pursuits and themselves.
Becoming a master at this approach to productive life is certainly no easier than mastering single-minded focus, but you might discover you are more suited to this approach.
Ultimately we experiences phases in our life where single-mindedness is both possible and practical, and periods in our lives when an integrated approach to a variety of daily activities is called for. Wherever you are at on the focused/unfocused spectrum right now, there is an opportunity to find a productive sweet spot. Carry that hope and that awareness with you into your day – start connecting the dots and be awakened to a dynamic new level of creative energy and productivity.