How Agile is Your Focus?

Do you pride yourself on being an exceptional multi-tasker?

Do you juggle numerous priorities?

Maybe it’s time to take a clear-eyed view of how multi-tasking and juggling affect performance.

In recent years, an incredible amount of research has been compiled against the perceived benefits of multi-tasking, revealing that it’s really not the path to a quick, agile brain.

Unfortunately, this is something government officials at the FBI had to learn the hard way. A story from The Washington Post details how the Bureau undertook a new case-management software project in 2003, and how it became the perfect example of why multi-tasking doesn’t work. Millions of dollars were wasted on a system that was doomed to fail. One bright spot in this tragic example comes as talented scientists and engineers began examining why it was such a colossal failure. And because they are smart and humble, they evolved ideas you and I can use in our daily lives.

For example, Gerald Weinberg, a computer scientist and instructor of the psychology and anthropology of software development, wrote a fantastic book titled Quality Software Management. As a way to illustrate the inferior thinking multi-tasking creates, Weinberg uses a chart to show how much “Loss of Context Switching” occurs when we try to focus on simultaneous projects.

At a glance, the chart reveals the cost of dividing your focus between three projects. Specifically, three concurrent projects means that 40% of your available time for focused work vanishes into thin air.

Another lesson garnished from software development related studies is that the human brain has actual, physical limitations as to how many details it can focus on at once. Scientist Harold Pashler published related research on this phenomenon called “Dual Task Interference.” The short version of his work tells us that as soon as we add another task (even a very simple task) into the mix, we double the time it takes to complete this task. Here’s a scenario to give this concept some context:

Let’s say you’re prepping ingredients for a meal. While chopping an onion, you begin to think about how tasty some grated carrot would be in this dish. Thusly inspired, you put down the knife, take time to cover up the half-chopped onion, head toward the fridge for the carrots, riffle through a drawer for the grater, grab a bowl and begin prepping the carrots . . .

You get the idea.

Each time we switch tasks, it not only takes time, but it also requires activating different parts of the brain as well as different body movements.

This is exactly why people who text and drive (even if they keep looking up from the phone to monitor the road ahead) can’t recruit both body and mind quickly enough to avoid an accident.

So what does this mean for you?

It means that if you’re working on a project, you really should focus on one thing at a time. It will increase your ability to be fully present and stop trashing and fracturing your capacity to be nimble and focused. Why not increase your self-efficacy instead of decrease it?

Agile FocusOne place to start—one strong, formidable move—is to define “focus agility” as:

One’s ability to stay focused on a project or task long enough to complete the darn thing in the most nimble, fluid, elegant, focused and quick manner possible.

And then, you can act in a manner where your efforts create high value. Start giving your brain (your executive brain) the time it needs to be at its best—making connections and decisions one laser focused moment to the next.


The result will be greater peace-of-mind, more creativity, more confidence, more purpose and presence and, yes, even more accomplished in less time with less effort.