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To Improve, Should You Speed Up? Or Slow Down?

"Ichigyo zammai," a powerful concept from Japan, can increase your focus.

Key points

  • Multitasking actually imposes a time tax.
  • A simple technique called "ichigyo zammai" can make you much more productive.
  • Is ii possible to speed up by slowing down?
unsplash, Buddi Kumar Shkreeth, jpeg
unsplash, Buddi Kumar Shkreeth, jpeg

We Americans are always in a big hurry. “Sorry, can’t talk. Got a deadline!” Busy, busy, busy! We’re not always sure where we’re going. But wherever it is, we need to get there fast! And much of Europe is hurrying along with us.

We are living in an era of Toxic Time.

We put our faith in the talismanic power of multitasking, to give us that magic twenty-fifth hour in every day.

David Strayer, professor of cognition and neuroscience at the University of Utah, counsels otherwise. “Ninety-eight percent of people are unable to multitask, although they think they can,” he says.

And as for adding more time? That too is a fallacy. Every shift from one project to another takes an infinitesimal amount of time, but those nibbles into available time all add up. Multitasking comes with a built-in time tax.

Multitasking also slightly degrades the quality of any new project we want to focus on. It happens because we’re hurrying so fast that we tend to drag the previous job into it. Multitasking pollutes any new job we need to focus on.

Luckily there’s a solution to this dilemma. It’s a Japanese concept called ichigyo-zammai. It means doing just one thing at a time and staying focused on it while we’re doing it.

Sunryo Suzuki wrote about ichigyo-zammai in his classic, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

Ichigyo-zammai involves a whole different way of looking at how we do things. It’s very rare in our culture that we do just do one thing at a time.

We’re usually doing lots of things.

All too often, when we are talking to someone, we’re also thinking of what we’ll say in response. And when we’re working on one problem, we’re also frequently thinking about unresolved issues from previous problems. And all through the day, we’re constantly checking our phones to check up on our latest messages.

We’re not fully present during any of these times!

Here are three things we could do to become more fully present and bring the clarity of ichigyo-zammai into our lives.

1. When you begin to practice ichigyo-zammai, honor your undertaking. Recognize that it can bless your life, and be intentional about practicing it. It is a valuable and important way of living your life!

2. When you undertake any new activity or project, intentionally focus on it to the exclusion of other thoughts. When stray thoughts intrude, notice them, and return your attention to your focus thought. This activity will require continuing practice, but if you’re motivated, and keep doing it, you will see great improvement.

3. After each session of focused, ichigyo-zammai thought, be thankful. Be thankful that you have a mind that can learn new things, and be thankful that there is an ichigyo-zammai discipline that can help your life so greatly.

The writer Aesop, creator of Aesop's Fables, who lived in a very different time and place, also understood the value of doing one thing at a time. He recognized that the rabbit’s fleeting attention span put him at a strategic disadvantage in his race against the mentally focused tortoise.

And 2,000 years ago, during the Roman Empire, the philosopher Suetonius had a similar understanding. He expressed it by saying, “Make haste slowly.”

So commit yourself to the regular practice of ichigyo-zammai, focusing on one thing at a time. The practice can greatly bless your life.

© David Evans

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