Change Your Focus for Big Results

When we think of being productive or creative, we tend to think it requires a deep focus. You want to be good at something? Then you’ve got to put in the work. But it might not require as much singular focus as we’d imagine. British journalist Tim Harford has uncovered a surprising aspect of creative longevity in his critically-acclaimed book Messy. Ranging expertly across business, politics and the arts, Harford makes a compelling case for the creative benefits of disorganization, improvisation and confusion.

According to Harford, the common denominator for creative minds is that they refuse to sit still. It’s what makes for successful polymaths (those interesting individuals with a wide range of knowledge and skills). These people practice what he calls “multi-tasking in slow motion”, where people move between numerous projects in rapid succession. Otherwise known as crop rotation, you might think of it as a high intensity workout for your life.

And just like those workouts keep your body and muscles guessing and engaged, so too does this crop rotation. It seems messy and unfocused, but in reality, it’s the secret to never getting bogged down and bored. “From the music studio of Brian Eno to the Lincoln Memorial with Martin Luther King, Jr., from the board room to the classroom, messiness lies at the core of how we innovate, how we achieve, how we reach each other,” says Harford. “In short, how we succeed.”

It’s in those unexpected changes of plans, those spontaneous collaborations with unfamiliar people that new ideas are generated. Harford’s findings align with the work of Bernice T. Eiduson, who in the 1960s examined why some scientists had a greater impact than others. What she discovered was that it didn’t matter the scientists’ age or their health. What mattered was how often they changed the subject they were researching. Instead of finding that the world’s greatest scientists were specialists, Eiduson uncovered the surprising fact that they changed subject not once or twice, but an average of 43 times during their careers. It was these moves that constantly refreshed and challenged their knowledge, ensuring they didn’t lose interest and enthusiasm in what they were working on.

The take away here is that introducing a little more crop rotation into your daily life and work is the key to staying engaged, enlightened and thinking creatively. Change up your focus, step out of your comfort zone and you’ll unlock all sorts of hidden benefits.

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