Focus Or Multi-tasking? Arjuna/ Voldemort Or Jack?

26 Feb


“Kill the Spare” – were Voldemort’s words just prior to poor Hufflepuff’s sole star, the good looking Cedric Diggory’s death. However, the reason why the innocent bystander was killed, was, so that “He Who Must Not be Named” and his allies could focus on the big task at hand – first resurrecting Voldemort, and then killing the “Boy Who Lived”.

What this talks to therefore is the need to focus on the important things in life so you can optimize your never ending “to do list” and check off those big ones that absolutely need to be done! It is no coincidence, after all, that “focusing” sun rays on one spot can light a fire! How’s that for incendiary?

concave_focus hanks

Strangely and coincidentally, my friend Nirupama just now put this up as her status update on facebook – “Focus on the eye of the fish said the famous guru to the even more famous disciple. Focus is the mantra. As long as it doesnt lead to extreme self absorption and an inability to appreciate collalteral damage to others in your wake:)”

I don’t know what her context was, but she refers to Arjuna, one of the Pandavas in the Hindu epic the Mahabharat, and his unparalleled ability to focus on the job at hand. This was displayed by 2 separate incidents – a), when their guru Dronacharya is testing all kids on archery – the target is the eye of a bird, when asked by the guru – what do you see, everyone answered different things – from the tree/ the bird/ the sky. But Arjuna said – the “eye of the bird” thus ensuring that he was the teacher’s pet forever (my kids would say – sucker up! and probably REALLY give him a hard time ☺ )


and b) when at the Swayamvara (marriage ceremony where the bride gets to choose her husband from a wide assortment – ancient India was far more liberal, you see!) held for Princess Draupadi, the competition is to shoot a revolving fish stuck on a moving pole, while staring into its reflection in a platter of oil – Arjuna again won his fair bride by nailing the fish in the eye.


The point is, that many leaders will tell you the secret to their success is concentration, and focus on doing what needs to be done most, first!

It is interesting, and a bit paradoxical, that in a world which prides itself on multitasking, it is as important to juggle many balls up in the air at the same time, as it is to ensure that the main ones – well, all actually but the main one most of all, is the one with the most time and attention invested upon it – in other words, focus!

Of course many of you may have come across this fairly famous New York Times article on multitasking (Actually, I was googling to find the url to insert here – and found many related articles within New York Times itself! A more recent one, with a slightly different stance, was this one )which essentially said that multitasking is actually detrimental to speed and efficiency, and even overall health! Interestingly, NYTimes argues for the power of concentration too, and draws an interesting analogy to Sherlock Holmes, who it calls the quintessential unitasker ☺ – read here

For the longest time, I despaired of my Woman Friday – Tulasi (referred to in my older blog) EVER learning parallel processing vs. her painful waterfall method of working – she was an invaluable resource, but try as I might, I NEVER managed to teach her the merit of frying the onions while cutting the tomatoes, and then frying the tomatoes with the onions while cutting the paneer! All this, while the water in the geyser was heating so the kids could take a bath. She FIRST cut ALL vegtables, THEN put the wok on the fire, and when the vegetable was all made – went upstairs to switch on the hot water! No wonder she got little time to herself! I realized that this ability to multitask/ parallel process – was not a gender function (much to my regret – trashing my hotly debated theory against my husband that women made better multitaskers), not an age related one (despite the NYT article – my mom multitasks with the best of them, and she is nearly 70) not even so much a socio economic class function (atleast not directly), but one related to education – if there is one thing that the process of higher education – specially engineering/ business management functions teaches us – it is how to do more in less time. So, one can’t really blame Tulasi – except maybe for having flunked the 5th grade!

Coming back to focus/ concentration (two different concepts by the way), a lot of search engines after Google, have attempted to deliver precisely this “precision” – the “focused” results thus enabling better relevance. It is also what current “Information Firehoses” are doing – structuring the info you consume such that it is relevant/ focused on what you NEED to know FIRST. Not to say that they won’t give you the others – it’s just scheduled in order of priority.


You know, a similar paradox is when you are learning to sing and play music, or to drive for that matter. When first beginning to drive, you have to focus on each of the separate aspects – pressing the clutch, then the gear change (for the non auto drivers 🙂 ), then the accelerator – whatever. But after sometime, your body lets you multitask all these easily – it’s basically the power of repitition – of having created enough muscle memory to make the task effortless. Similarly, when you first begin to learn to play an instrument say the guitar, and you have always been a vocalist – you tend to not be able to distinguish the chords separate from the lyrics/ melody. But after some training, you are able to focus on the chords such that your ear hears the notes, the chords, as well as the beats of the percussion instrument.

This is also how you resolve the apparent conflict between proponents of focus vs those of multitasking – let’s face it, in today’s world, multi tasking is an unavoidable necessity – I think ALL of us have worked multiple projects together; heated up food to feed the kids with a phone stuck to one ear participating in telecons, OR practiced our vocal music while driving. But, the “focus” helps you decide how much time to spend on which activity – the one that wins is obviously the one you NEED to do MOST – ie, that which someone else cannot do; that which has maximum impact on profitability or client satisfaction; that which just requires the maximum time to do…etc…the effective manager actually therefore manages to combine the best of both worlds – multitask, and yet focus.

Incidentally, a related concept is that of the generalist vs. the specialist – and there is a reason why at entry levels in an organisation, you start by orientation in all fields/ functions, then in mid management you specialize in one field, then again broadening skill sets when you start moving towards senior management.

Which basically means that Arjun was right – so was Voldemort in a way (killing notwithstanding) – but so also the Jack who is jack of all trades and master of none! He is probably the most relevant in today’s corporate world.


As Brian Tracy said, “…you cannot eat every tadpole and frog in the pond, but you can eat the biggest and ugliest one, and that will be enough, at least for the time being.”


2 Responses to “Focus Or Multi-tasking? Arjuna/ Voldemort Or Jack?”


  1. Playing to Your Strengths? Really? | joshsang - March 1, 2013

    […] of many functions whilst you keep your specialization active. This is what I had referred to in my earlier blog on focus vs. multi-tasking. Typical corp journey makes you first a generalist, then a specialist and finally a generalist […]

  2. The Merit of Moderation/ The Golden Mean; or 50 Shades of Grey! | joshsang - March 13, 2013

    […] concepts, in personal as well as professional life – doing vs. managing; theory x vs. theory y; focus vs. multitasking; strength enhancement vs. weakness consolidation etc etc. Also, in most of them, my advice at the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: