When Focus Becomes Monotony

I’m lucky to have a long attention span — to be able to concentrate for many hours on one task without being distracted. What makes me bored is not working for too long a stretch but rather, over the course of months or years, discovering that all of the things I’m doing serve the same mission. That realization was one of the factors in my decision to leave my full-time job in late 2008.

In some sense, despite my long attention span, I have become a multitasker. Not of the sort who does many things in the same moment, but the kind who craves a diversity of purpose. I feel an acute need to spend my time in a wide variety of domains yet to inhabit each with singular intensity. This kind of multitasking is best understood not in the usual way, as simultaneity, but rather as multidimensionality. It’s spatial rather than temporal.

Case in point. I spend a significant portion of my work life teaching adult immigrants. I believe in what I’m doing, and I feel that in the classroom every day. Yet, as both a math teacher and an English teacher, I must be flexible enough to differ in those two roles, approaching each in the way that the specific merits of the discipline — and the particular needs of the students — demand. In effect, I have two main missions within my role as a teacher, and many smaller missions within those.

But that isn’t enough for me. I do freelance writing and editing in an array of disciplines (business, medicine, the humanities, and others). In each one, I become what the discipline asks of me — on its own terms. And I play different editorial and authorial roles within the various domains. When I contemplate my work identity, I feel like a dodecahedron, and I’m happy to be one. My need for this many-sidedness is fundamental. Without it, I would become flat and voiceless — the thin skin of a drum without its deep barrel.

Some wonder, of course, whether I actually needed to quit my full-time job to achieve multidimensionality. People, some calling themselves researchers, now instead advocate transforming the job you have into the one you want. Sure, that’s better than making no change at all. But if the different niches you manage to carve for yourself within your present job ultimately have you serving the same mission, corporate or otherwise, are you just doctoring your perceptions about your work life or actually changing your reality? A loaf of bread looks different if you reshape the dough — but it’s still a loaf of bread.

That said, each person must grapple with these questions of self-fulfillment in his or her own way. My own conclusions might be wildly off base for someone else. The key is to make sure you’re reflecting on your situation honestly, not navigating a conveniently circuitous path to a foregone conclusion. Only you can make the assessment. If someone else (like me) does, you probably won’t buy it.

If in the end you do decide that serving one mission simply isn’t enough, the practical obstacles to change are enormous, unfortunately. The U.S. economy isn’t set up to make diversity of purpose easy to achieve, at least when it comes to work. Health care, for starters, is not something to which we all have common access — split your time among employers and you usually pay through the nose. It’s dangerously easy, therefore, for freelancers and others who diversify their obligations to slip into the trap of becoming mercenaries, who by definition don’t have a mission other than to earn money. That’s where the line between multidimensionality and fragmentation starts to blur. The former is whole; the latter is a mess.

Still, monotony that masquerades as focus is a frightening prospect to me, despite the risks inherent in trying to avoid it. For now, my long attention span and my acute need for diversity are managing to coexist comfortably. The drumbeat of my heart remains steady. If it starts to flutter, I’ll let you know.

About Steven DeMaio
Steven DeMaio teaches English and math at the Community Learning Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences in Somerville, Massachusetts. He also works as a freelance editor and writer. This is a continuation of his blog that ran for 10 months in 2009 on HBR.org.

5 Responses to When Focus Becomes Monotony

  1. I do agree with you on that multitasking on a spacial basis. I have the same experience in 3 different jobs and feel likewise about the mission.

    As a teacher I notive that it seems that people grasp the money drive too easily and forget the rather important mission drive.
    One gotta have a purpose to live. And money… that’s just a way, not a goal.

    Keep on, Steven! The world is always suitable for changes.
    Best regards.

  2. Katharine says:

    “I feel like a dodecahedron, and I’m happy to be one.” What a wonderfully evocative image! Thanks for that.

  3. Charlie says:

    I have found myself wanting to quit my job for a while, but I also had a hard time taking the people writing about quitting seriously. They talk about renewal and reinvention as though quitting became some religious experience. I find your views refreshing. I do not want to reinvent myself. I do not need some life altering epiphany. I want to be me. I lean towards multidimensionality as well. Paint, write, carve, teach, refinish furniture, and read theoretical physics. My brain craves more than just one thing, one focus, one mission. Thank you for being a realist who takes chances.

  4. Andres says:

    I have been reading your articles for a while now; I have to say you offer a different and refreshing perspective on things. I am contemplating quitting my current job, but the idea frightens me to the point where fear overcomes my desire to quit. The fear I know comes from the realization that my savings are not enough in order for me to quit without having found a new job. I have a Bachelor of Science in Airport Management and have worked as an Assistant Project Administrator for about a year at JFK International Airport. I don’t mind the work, but it is not fulfilling on a personal and spiritual level. I guess I am in the wrong field altogether for my vision of the ideal job is that of one that will allow me to help others and at the same time achieve that feeling of purpose that comes from been able to change people’s lives for the better. I have considered a job as a counselor and have applied for a few positions with no luck. I also like teaching, but don’t think I am qualified. I am confident that I will find my path in life and thanks to your writing this process has become a little clearer and easier. I will be taking a week off from work to meditate and think about my future and the road to follow. I am 24 years old and often people tell me that at this age I shouldn’t mind having to work 10 hours day all week; they say I am young and should have the energy which I do, but I want to channel all my energy into something meaningful.

    I know you probably don’t the time to answer to all comments, but do you have any recommendations that would help see things a little clearer? It seems that you made a smooth transition from your old job to your teaching and freelance work.

  5. Andres, I very much appreciate your following this blog, which I haven’t given much attention in recent months. Age certainly works in your favor, banal as that observation is. That said, quitting a job isn’t for everyone, obviously. The factors vary from person to person, and one of the most important is your own self-knowledge about how you respond to navigating without a rudder. (See my old post on HBR.org called “When Not to Quit Your Job”: http://blogs.hbr.org/demaio/2009/03/when-not-to-quit-your-job.html).

    If it’s possible for you to get your feet wet in teaching (maybe one or two evenings a week in adult or immigrant education), that might be best — just to make sure you like the reality of teaching, not just the idea of it. I returned to teaching after a hiatus, so I already knew I enjoyed it. And I’m still splitting my time roughly evenly between that and freelance work. So far so good — it’s a nice balance.

    Good luck to you in finding your own balance, even if it looks nothing like mine.

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