How to be a Multi-Focus Maverick
Image courtesy of Susan Barrett Price.

How to be a Multi-Focus Maverick

Written by Emilie

Topics: Productivity

Every multipotentialite is different. Some of us have twenty different projects going on at once, while others focus intensely on one thing for years before switching direction.

We’re plate-spinners and dabblers, sequential deep divers, undercover double agents and hybrids of the above. (For an extensive look at the different types of scanners, check out Barbara Sher’s brilliant book, Refuse to Choose.)

To make matters even more complicated, we have interests that come and go in a matter of hours and interests that stay with us for years or reappear periodically in different forms. How do you tell the difference between the two and how do you fit them all in?

The good news is that it’s totally possible to make room in your schedule for multiple long term projects and exploration. All it takes is a bit of mental preparation.

Imagine a Giant Switch in Your Head

Imagine that your brain has two settings: focus mode and scanning mode. At any given time, you’re either in one mode or the other. Lets take a look at each.

Focus Mode

Focus Mode is used to make headway on 1 high priority project of choice.

1 focus? Blasphemy, I know… But bear with me.

It doesn’t have to be for a long period of time. Depending on the nature of your project, your scanning type and your propensity for ADD attacks, focus mode may last 20 minutes, a few hours or a week.

Hell, it could even last months or years (with breaks of course) if you’re a hardcore deep diving, sequential multipod. Some scanners are perfectly happy focusing on one project for a long period of time before they change directions entirely. Others, most certainly, are not.

Your Focus Period can be SHORT

If you’re hyperventilating by the thought of focusing on only one thing, relax. This doesn’t need to be a major commitment. If you have trouble focusing on one thing for very long, then make your focus period ridiculously short. How does 5 minutes sound?

My friend James studies Japanese for 15 minutes a day, that’s it. Does he make progress on that goal and other goals? You betcha.

What’s important isn’t the length of time, but that you make the distinction in your head that you are in focus mode, not scanning mode. It’s not time to be multitasking.

Work in Spurts

Studies show that we work best in 40-90 minute increments. Take a break or stop entirely after this time is up. I find that 40-90 min is usually the longest I can focus on one project anyway. Then I need to use another part of my brain.

Match Your Spurts of Focus with Your Body’s Natural Productivity Rhythm

For bonus points, determine your most inspired times of the day and match them with your spurts in focus mode. I tend to be most creative in the morning, which roughly coincides with two spurts of 90-minute focus. I’ll either spend this time on one project with a short break in between, or I’ll switch to new project after my first spurt ends.

I also know from paying attention to my body, that I get a burst of energy at night, which again, I try to match up with a few additional spurts in focus mode. (This is why I tend to schedule my social activities for between 2pm-7pm, during my unproductive time. So if you ever want to take me out for tea, this would be the best time to propose a get together. ;)

The High School Timetable Approach

Several short spurts in focus mode is how I manage to cycle through many different projects in one day. I work intensely on one project for an hour, take a short break and then work intensely on something entirely unrelated. It’s sort of like how things were back in high school: 45 minutes focusing on only history, 45 minutes focusing on only math, and so on (except way more fun, obviously).

The high school timetable method isn’t right for all scanners. You may prefer to work  on one project only for the entire day, a week or longer.

The basic rule: Work on one project till you get bored or lose interest (for however long that may be) and then switch to something new.

As long as you focus on one project at a time, you’ll be fine. The trouble comes when you try multitasking.

The Difference Between Multi-Focusing and Multitasking

Multitasking is incredibly destructive when you’re in focus mode. You don’t think about your art project when you’re in English class, right? You think about Beowulf, or whatever.

Multi-focusing and multitasking are two very different beasts. Multi-focusing is the process of pouring all your energy into one project for a short period of time and then switching to another project and focusing on only that.

Multitasking, on the other hand, involves thinking about everything at once and doing small actions related to many projects at the same time.

Multitasking is a highly ineffective way of making progress. However, it is a great way of exploring new possible interests…

Multitasking is Good Sometimes

If the idea of avoiding multitasking sounds too difficult for your overstimulated brain, don’t worry. Unlike the typical productivity gurus, I’m not going to tell you to cut out multitasking altogether. That’s just unrealistic.

Multipotentialites Need Unstructured Time to Explore New Ideas

We are constantly becoming curious in new things. It’s part of our make up and it’s one of the best things about being a scanner. There’s no need to feel guilty about multitasking, you just need to relegate it to its proper time and place. That’s precisely what scanning mode is for.

Stay tuned for installment #2 in the Multi-Focus Maverick Series for a lengthy look at scanning mode and effective multitasking.

Your Turn

What strategies do you use for making progress on many goals? Is there anything in particular you’d like me to discuss in future segments of the Multi-Focus Maverick Series?

35 Comments

  1. Mel says:

    Hi Emilie, I just recently found your site and absolutely love this post. My husband is a scanner too and was finding himself feeling drained at the end of the day because he was constantly trying to either multitask or not focusing when he had the energy. My advice was almost exactly like yours “work as intensely on your interest as you can while you have the energy, and save your other (non focus based work) during the lulls”. So far he’s experienced a huge difference just by letting himself focus when his body is telling him to. Can’t wait to see the rest of the series!

    • Emilie says:

      Hi Mel, That’s so cool. I’m glad to hear that your husband is starting to find his way and is getting results with these strategies. Also, good on you for being so supportive! Many scanners aren’t that lucky.

      Oh and it’s very nice to meet you, Mel. Thanks for the kind words. :)

  2. I pretty much live by my timer. I always have a dozen different things I’d like to work on at a time, so I set timers to make sure that I get through everything I *need* and *want* to do in a day. I don’t work for too long on anything — on particularly tough days, I’m cool with just doing fifteen minute sprints on a project until it gets done.

    • Emilie says:

      Interesting. I’ve noticed that some multipotentialites live by timers and others despise them.

      I’m somewhere in the middle. Sometimes they’re incredibly effective and other times they just stress me out. It might depend on the activity. For instance, I can’t time myself when writing a blog post. They say that’s supposed to help speed up your writing, but it never works for me. But my scanning/exploration time? I totally use a stop watch for that, otherwise the resistance will take over and I’ll end up multitasking forever.

  3. Emilie, I am so excited about this post and this series. I feel like I’ve been working on multiple projects for a long time now and it’s only been through brute force that I’ve been able to succeed. I’m DEFINITELY a framework person and so I am really excited about having a framework from which to operate.

    I too am most focused and energized in the morning and in the evenings. Unfortunately, the times when I’d rather be napping or running errands are the times when everyone else is at work. I am constantly feeling pressure to be available when folks with 9 – 5 jobs are available for socializing.

    I hope advice on managing your traditional friends is a focus of one of these posts!

    • Emilie says:

      Oh good. I’m so glad you’re finding this helpful, Brian. :)

      And I struggle with the socializing issue as well. It seems like the “traditional employment” schedule is not inline with many peoples natural productivity rhythm. So being self-employed and setting your own hours naturally makes things a little difficult.

      I’ll try to get to this topic at some point in the series. Thanks for the suggestion!

  4. Helen says:

    Nice stuff Emilie – thanks!!
    I have tried chunking my day out, but then fail to follow through. I will try again tomorrow.
    Thanks also for distinguishing between multi-focus and multi-task – very helpful.

    • Emilie says:

      No problem, Helen. Thanks for giving me the idea for this series. It’s such an important issue for multipotentialites. I’m really glad you brought it up!

  5. I actually need a lot of downtime to scan and do what looks to other people like I’m just fucking around. But I’m feeding my mind the information it needs to synthesize stuff.

    • Emilie says:

      Oh good point. Sometimes scanning mode is about synthesis and letting ideas percolate. (Sleep can be about that too. :)

  6. Lex Mosgrove says:

    Great post, and a great idea for a series! Looking forward to reading more!

    I’m essentially going by the basic rule. The downside is that when I’m really focused on one topic, all my other projects are forgotten for the time being (sorry everyone who’s waiting for my comic). However, since this is dead tiring, I gotta try a few other options (timetables don’t work for me, but I got a good idea what might).

    • Emilie says:

      Hey Lex,

      I think it’s okay to let your other projects sit untouched, if you’re really focused on one thing in particular. The problems come when you make promises and other people are relying on you. Maybe waiting to set expectations till you know which project you want to pursue more seriously would help?

      I have this problem too though. Especially with Puttylike, I’m constantly declaring my goals publicly and then getting overwhelmed by “other people’s expectations”. But the thing is, people are often quite forgiving if you’re just honest about being busy with other things. Especially if they see how excited you are about those other things.

      Also maybe I’ve trained people to expect change with me, since I do run a site about multipotentiality. :)

      Anyway, interesting topic. I’ll try to address it in a future post.

      • Lex Mosgrove says:

        Good point, however project favorisation wasn’t the problem here, but which project made the most sense to do first, in terms of time to completion, expected revenue, etc. (CARVER matrix to the rescue – hey, that thing is gold.)
        Hmm. Maybe you could fit something about how to deal with “I got too much stuff on my plate and don’t know where to start aka. which ebook should I write first” in terms of business projects into the series?

        Well, forgiving or not, I’d be happier if they’d stop nagging me when it’s obvious that they’ll have to wait. Guess I should train them, too. ;)

  7. Jackie says:

    Emilie,

    I’ve been lurking behind the scenes exploring the possibility of my multipotentialite-ism…and I’ll be damned if you havent finally put a label on my behaviours. Holy shit thats me to a tee!

    Looking foward to the rest of the series.

  8. This will be a great series Emilie. Multi-focusing is how I get things accomplished.

    For instance: I wanted to read the Bible from front to back but knew it would be hard to concentrate if i read it like I normally read books – it’s not an easy book to read ‘wink’. So I made it part of my morning routine. While I ate breakfast and sipped my morning tea I would commit to reading 4 pages a day. Yes, I did miss a day here and there if I was unable to follow my morning routine, but approx. 85% of my mornings were routine. It took me 3 years but eventually I did read the whole Bible from beginning to end. Major accomplishment for me:)

    If I need to accomplish something that I know will take awhile. I work it into my daily routine and know eventually it will get done.

    • Emilie says:

      That’s a great point, Julie. Breaking a goal down into small daily action is definitely the way to do it. And if you can couple that action with an already established routine (like eating breakfast), that’s even better. Especially if it’s a positive association (breakfast is yummy).

      I always think of this story (I think it was Ramit Sethi’s) about a guy who wrote his masters thesis by writing 1 sentence per day. He finished before all his classmates, who no doubt procrastinated like most do and then worked around the clock in the weeks leading up to the deadline. Interesting.

  9. Banu says:

    Emilie,
    I really admire your transparency. It takes guts! When people like you have the courage to be themselves and show up with their imperfect selves (we are human so we are all imperfect), it gives the rest of us permission to do so. I just wanted to drop you a line and tell you this. I hope your new life in Portland brings you many new connections, meaningful friednships and more opportunities to contribute to humanity.

    ~banu
    (Your fellow multipotentialite)

  10. linda says:

    I’m so happy to have found your site and can totally relate…ahhh! Why do people keep assuming that we must do this ONE thing in life? Madness I say.

    Although I have certain interests now…I don’t want to lock myself into thinking anything is forever. More importantly, I don’t want to feel bad when my creativity tells me to explore other things… anyway… about getting things done.

    I’m definitely a deadline driven person, so it’s important to have a mega calendar to make sure you get what you need to get done, completed on time. However, all the details should be … putty like :P I go with the flow, so if that means spending 3 days flaming through a particular project because the mojo is flowing – fabulous!

    For other things, it might be 10 minutes a day, slowly working at a budding interest. Some people say flighty, wishy washy, undirected…all these negative terms.

    I have realized instead that it’s about focusing on a different level. You focus on what you are doing now, but in the big picture there’s a lot going on…so you don’t have one focus in your life.

    Here I go, rambling on – just wanted to say thanks for sharing your thoughts and will definitely be following!

    • Emilie says:

      Hi Linda!

      That’s an interesting way of looking at things- different levels of focus. I like it.

      Like you, I’ve found that I can’t really generalize about my schedule. It changes all the time. I’ll plan out a calendar with long term goals but I need to leave room for flexibility and those sprints of “flowing mojo” to spontaneously arise. I figure if I follow my plan even 60%, that’s still way better than nothing. So I still set timelines and daily routines, I just don’t stress too much if I’m not perfect about following through.

      I used to make massive lists and chart everything but I found myself getting stressed out with all that structure. It’s definitely about finding a balance between structure and flexibility.

      Thanks for the comment, Linda. :)

  11. jill says:

    Cool post! I’m a huge “multi-tasker”… totally ineffective for progress (for me). I like the idea of multi focus-er. Looking forward to tips on creating that focus. ; )

    P.S. Did you get my email about a session?

    • Emilie says:

      Definitely. Inducing ‘flow states’ is something I’m very interested in. You can count on it, Jill.

      And yes, I responded (twice). Weird! You must not be getting my emails… Do you have another email address? Feel free to email me (emilie@puttylike.com) with your address if you don’t want to post it here… Or maybe my emails ended up in your spam folder? Lets get this sorted out, cause I’d love to work with you. :)

  12. Tim Webster says:

    I created a schedule for myself to help me focus. The schedule, of course, isn’t a rigid 24 hour unbreakable To Do List, but includes things like ‘5:30pm – 6:30pm – Read blogs’ and other specific tasks like ‘8pm – 9pm – Build “Videos” page for ___ website’

    It allows me to have generally focused tasks (blog reading, it can be any blog, any topic) and highly focused tasks (creating a specific page for a specific site)

    Before giving myself structured, specific ‘To Do’ time, and also budgeting in non-specific ‘browsing’ time, I had so much on my plate that I constantly felt overwhelmed and got very little done.

    Now, my schedule and accompanying checklist of things are always up to date and I feel that I’ve accomplished more! :)

    • Emilie says:

      Absolutely! This is very close to how I plan out my days too. Structured “free time” i.e. scanning mode, with spurts of focus on discrete projects. Works nicely for me too.

      Thanks for your input, Tim. We’re definitely on the same wavelength. :)

  13. Sarah O says:

    I’m late to this party, but oh my Goddess I am so glad I found you! And here I’ve been beating myself up all this time for being a “dabbler” (I even started a blog once called The Dabbler, but I never followed through..and actually wrote anyting on it:-) )
    What a great idea – to distinguish between multi-tasking and multi-focusing. And using the timer for the multi-tasking part to pull myself away from obsessively reading email, blogs, etc. Once I’m in the flow on a project I’m enjoying – well then that timer just annoys me!
    I love this concept of multipotentiality and I’m so glad I’ve found a name for this core part of my personality.

    So, where’s the rest of this series? Guess I’ll keep clicking around.
    Thank you!!!

    • Emilie says:

      Haha I love this, thanks Sarah! And welcome to the Puttylike community. You’re among professional dabblers (and friends). :)

      And to answer your question, I think I got to about part 6 of the series and then lost interest. LOL. I continued to write productivity posts from time to time though, but they’re kind of all over the place.

      Try this, or even the list on the Start Here page under Focus, Productivity and Switching between Interests.

  14. Kim says:

    Hey! Found your site yesterday, and I’m taking a bit of time to check out a few posts and orient myself. I just want to say, I think I’m going to LOVE this series and am looking forward to reading more of them. I remember telling a friend a while back… now that I am not working every day, I almost feel like I have LESS time to do things. Not because I actually do, but because now that I have more time, I’ve stuffed it with MORE things for me to do! I often find myself feeling rushed on one task because I want time to get the rest in. So I think this series will be really good for me to read!

  15. Alison says:

    Love this – you’ve described me to a tee “hyperventilating by the thought of focusing on only one thing”! Thankyou so much – this is exactly the sort of article I need, with 12-ish (and the rest) random, smooshed business ideas swirling in my head at any one time, demanding my attention. Can’t drop any one of them, this will help me get some internal peace…so glad/relieved/excited I found you.

  16. Jenny says:

    Hi Emilie,
    I just wanted to share once again how good it is to read your thoughts. And I wanted to say that it’s helping my just turned eight year old son. We are homeschooling and doing it the multipotentialite way. This is confusing for our other friends who follow rigid curriculums (I never once bought a packaged set of grade level text books). Sometimes I worried about that when chatting with other families who seem to have everything so organized and on a timeline. I love the idea of using the multi-focus approach instead of the multi tasking approach. I needed this more than ever. It’s a method I can live with while also working on my various projects. My son struggles with writing and spelling, which has been frustrating for both of us. But now I think we’ll try “one sentence a day” at breakfast.

  17. nitsi says:

    This is the first time I have ever left a comment on a website, but I just love your website so much I had to tell you! I’ve been thinking this whole time that the way I think and jump from one project to another is wrong. I am so happy to have found this site!

  18. Yes, the “hyperventilating at the thought of focusing on one thing” made me laugh. It was as if you’d read my mind. :-)

    I find that this way of working is what tends to be most productive for me as well, although as a parent I’m often multitasking even when I’d rather not be!

  19. Antonio says:

    Hello Emilie,
    I am an Italian boy and I discovered puttylike (and you) for the first time a few days ago, through the TED portal. I was very surprised by your words, it was as if, in a moment, everything went in the right place and the guilt had disappeared under the weight of a logical explanation. As if I had spied for life … What should I tell you? Thanks, today I practiced moments of focus and scan and I completed my tasks without the usual boredom, frustration … I did it lightly and this is thanks to you. I will continue to follow you, I’m going to devour the blog posts to learn again and again.

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