Here’s a quick exercise: look around the room you’re in, wherever you are, and notice everything that is red. Study the red. Memorize the red. Now quickly without thinking close your eyes and recall everything that is yellow. I’ve both done that exercise and led students in doing it this week. It is eye opening what escapes our notice when we are focused on something else.
I have been thinking about issues of focus and lack of focus lately in my own life and work. Like many of you, I am someone with lots to keep me occupied, lots to focus on, in each day. I sometimes catch myself sending that “quick email” while one of my kids is asking for my attention. Or tempted to check that text while driving (I don’t do it). Or watching a television show I have chosen to watch, but finding my mind wandering and reflecting on the congregational program we just had or is coming up. And, like many of you, I think of myself as pretty good at multitasking. I juggle two big jobs (one as rabbi/officiant and one as professor at Trent University) and two little kids (they are four and two years old this April). I also am also a spouse, a friend, a doula, a Wen-Do Women’s Self-Defence instructor and board member, a creative writer, a researcher, and an avid health/workout nut as of late. I also have do to things like grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, paying bills, driving, caretaking, etc. Also I really like to keep up to date on certain Netflix shows. There is a lot going on and sometimes I need to multitask in order to fit it all in.
And yet lately I have been feeling the cost of all that juggling and multitasking. I’ve seen compelling research that when we think we are multitasking well, we often are not as effective at any of the tasks as we think we are and as we would be if we separated them. That is, we think we are seeing all the colours but we are really only seeing red. I have started to experiment with what will happen if I slow down and do one thing at a time. I’ve started chunking my time into blocks: parenting, Oraynu work, Trent work, side hustle projects, television unwinding, cooking and eating, tasks I tend to avoid, etc. To know how long a chunk is I sometimes use a timer, or I sometimes use my own sense of when something is completed or is good enough for now, or I sometimes use external factors like my kids getting home from daycare. What have I found? I’m generally more productive and a whole lot happier when I focus in on something and try to block out everything else. In short, I’m trying to see only red for a while, and then switching my focus to yellow so that I can eventually see the whole spectrum.
For productivity purposes, this is a good thing. But perhaps for purposes of perspective, the red/yellow exercise has a different set of meanings. We all go through life with a particular set of values and beliefs. For many of us connected to Oraynu, those encompass (but this is neither a prescriptive nor an exhaustive list): belief in the power of humans doing good, belief in community, connectedness to Jewish peoplehood, trust in rationality and science. Our beliefs, values, and experiences inform our perspective, our lens through which we view the world. Many of us know of phenomena like confirmation bias; we seek out articles or research that confirms that which we believe. Or the “bubble” we surround ourselves with; people who are like us and think like us. This only bolsters and strengthens our perspective. This is natural to a degree (we all do it). But the red/yellow exercise reminds us that as we view the world through one lens, we are not seeing certain things. That is, whatever it is we choose to focus on, we are missing something else.
Ironically, me focusing in on one task at a time has left me feeling freer and more open to see the world in new ways. I’ve used the tools of focus to broaden my focus. I’ve challenged myself this past month (new year and all) to read books from perspectives I usually don’t consider or follow. I’ve asked students of mine who I know disagree with my politics to be brave and debate with me and other students and model what respectful engagement and debate can look like. I’ve just tried to see more yellow around me. Maybe even some blue and orange every now and then.
So here’s a challenge for you: try to focus on one thing you tend to ignore or miss — whether it’s an idea, an experience, a feeling, even a person, and try to focus on them for a while this week. See if that makes you open up to something new. And in the weeks to come we’ll be talking more about focus. Using the messaging behind Shabbat, the day of rest, to unplug, be mindful, be grateful, and more.