Must Be Present to Win

Article by Grace DurfeeI came so close, but I missed a golden opportunity. Billie Jean King, one of my long-time tennis idols, was a speaker at a convention I attended. At the end of her presentation, she pulled out her racquet and hit a bucket-full of autographed tennis balls into the audience. Everyone had remained standing after giving her a standing ovation and watched with anticipation to see where her next shot would land.

My seat was quite a distance from the stage, and I felt it would literally be a long shot for one to reach me. I had a notebook and pen tucked under one arm, so when a ball came straight to me, I only had one hand free to catch it. Even at that distance, the ball had some pace on it, and all I managed to do was block it. The ball bounced off my hand, and a woman several rows in front of me, who had both hands free, became the lucky recipient. As disappointed as I was, I wryly chuckled to myself about the message to focus on one thing at a time being driven home in such a clear way.

Although many of us (myself included) pride ourselves on our multi-tasking abilities, we are kidding ourselves when we think we can give full attention to more than one thing at a time. A recent news special cited the terrible Union Pacific/Metrolink train collision of 2008 as an instance of multi-tasking with deadly consequences. Twenty-five deaths resulted from this accident, which was attributed to the driver texting while driving and failing to notice a signal to switch tracks because of an oncoming train.

Driving a car while texting, using a hand-held cell phone, or punching a new destination into the GPS can be equally dangerous. Some U.S. states have banned texting and using cell phones (here in MA this is limited to teen drivers), but ultimately it comes down to self-determination.

When we think we are multi-tasking, we are actually zig-zagging — shifting our attention back and forth between multiple activities. This is really not the most efficient or effective way to get things done. Full engagement produces the best and speediest results.

Productivity experts have found that depending on the complexity of the task and other variables, it can take 4-15 minutes to recover and refocus after an interruption. Some interruptions can be easily managed by using a “do not disturb” sign, turning off the ringer on your phone or the chime that alerts you to an incoming email or text, or escaping to a conference room or library for work that require intense concentration. Others may require changing others’ expectations of your response, and setting and managing your boundaries around them.

For example, a number of my clients discipline themselves to check and answer email only one to three times during the workday. A fellow coaching colleague uses an email autoresponder to inform people that she is taking her own coaching advice and limiting her relationship with email. She shares the two days a week that she responds to email and requests that people call her or her assistant if they require a more immediate response.

Here are some questions to consider about your own level of engagement with what’s important to you:

  • Where do you attempt to do too much at once?
  • What could you do to become more present?
  • What might you win by choosing to be fully engaged?

When the ball comes to you, you’ll have a much better chance of catching it when you give your full attention to the game.

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