Focus is the new black. Last week at the AlwaysOn conference I watched as a bevy of back-row bloggers typed madly — doing email, blogging, IM-ing, participating in the in-room chat, etc. — as speakers tried desperately to get their attention, like pissed-off peelers being ignored at a strip club that had a tasty lunch roast beef special.
Because you can do a lot when you work on seven things at once — and I’m living testimony to the joys of multitasking — there are also limits to how productive you can be. After all, you can’t time-slice some activities; they just take what they take, and if you are unable to allocate the serial time to the task it will simply never get done.
Productivity mavens have made a related job for years about pregnancy: Even if you assign pregnancy to four different people it still takes nine months to have a baby.
Something similar is true in the context-switched, always-on world of technology. While people are getting better at turning off now and then, having communications holidays and the like, we aren’t good at throttling back the stimulii when we’re in full context-switching mode, blasting back-and-forth between email, blogging, IM, phone calls, and so on.
That’s why focus is the new black. It won’t be long — and I’ve begun to hear early rumblings of this already — that paeans to smart entrepreneurs will be about their ability to focus on a single task just as much as being about their intelligence, skills, and experience. “Wow, that guy can really focus. Did you hear that he/she worked for three hourse straight on that chunk of code/marketing doc/spec/term sheet/etc.?
It used to be that it was in vogue to be able to process tons of information rapidly. Being able to analyze information from ten different sources made you like an information air controller, someone able to deal in parallel with all sorts of data.
But now everyone can do that — to a fault. We’re all able to keep multiple threads running at once, to the point that many of us can’t remember a time when we weren’t doing utterly unrelated tasks X, Y,Z, and A, B, C simultaneously. Not only that, I know many people who literally become catatonic when they are not drugged up on an over-stimulated, multi-threaded, information-interrupt high. Sure, they complain that they’re unable to read books, and that anything requring more than five minutes of work is beyond them, but that’s about as far as their recognition of the problem goes (beyond having bought “Getting Things Done” and wondering why they haven’t found time to finish the book).
Subconsciously I’ve internalized this in my own evaluation behavior. When I’m looking at startups I increasngly find myself looking for the “focus guy”, someone who can literally sit down for hours while tearing into something, and then produce (a key point), on a regular basis. And if in over-stimulated, ADD-prone 2005, companies don’t have that sort of person I’m nervous, nervous, nervous.
As a sidenote, my personal approach to dealing with this issue — because I’m as fond of being over-stimulated as the next information omnivore — is to be merciless with myself about time. I have a short list of activities on which I spend 85% of my time — doing early-stage investing, and working with a friend on a particular startup project — and everything else (blogging, messing with new software, reading people’s stuff, speaking, and so on) must comes out of the remaining 15%. It hasn’t been easy, but if I didn’t do it I would be buzzing on an information high — and utterly unproductive.