Monday, September 19, 2011

Spend Some Time in the Margins of Your Attention

Much has been posted here and elsewhere about the importance of minimizing distractions and interruptions in order to have the time to create meaningful work.But if focused like a laser on a project with head down, door shut, and router disabled, is there some chance we also limit the ability to create new ideas in our work and life?

While reading End Malaria, I came across a piece called "Genius is in the Margins of Your Attention" by Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation.

Johnson writes that ideas and innovation spring from the exploration of the "adjacent possible," (a phrase coined by Stuart Kauffman) or "all the different ways your work or creative life can be recombined into new forms." And opening up your mind to these possibilities-- located at the "margins of your attention"-- depends upon diversifying your interests (having a great many hobbies) and working on multiple projects in parallel (multitasking).

Johnson praises "slow multitaskers" who work on multiple projects involving different topics over the course of hours and days. Likewise, having many hobbies creates new potential connections and ways of approaching problems from different perspectives. Of course it is important to concentrate on a single problem, but do so mindful of the need to spend some time in the margins exploring the adjacent possible.

Johnson's ideas are echoed just three pages later by Josh Linkner, author of Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity. In "What's Your Idea Schedule?" Linkner advocates taking 5 % of your time (2 hours) each week to reflect, think, create, and explore possibilities instead of cranking out assignments. According to Linker, resting the left brain and energizing the right brain stokes productivity, efficiency and innovation.

So maybe being too focused on focus is not such a good idea after all.