Seizing Chaos - a Martial Perspective on Multitasking

This post was originally published in the personal blog of Chief Instructor Corey Guilbault who also serves as a professional marketing strategist.

In addition to working in businesses I’ve spent nearly two decades in the martial arts. Today I run a school with students of my own. Part of that entails doing public demonstrations. In these demonstrations I try to connect martial concepts to real-world needs. The reason is simple; while many people may get into the martial arts to learn ‘self defense’ most will not get into physical confrontations. Therefore martial arts must be made relevant in other ways.

To me, the world of business is one area that can greatly benefit from martial concepts. At the dojo a week ago, we focused training on randori(literally ‘seizing chaos’). Randori is a multiple person attack where three or four or five people come at you simultaneously (vs. one at a time as they conveniently do in the movies).

In the past, doing public demonstrations, I like to end the presentation with a brief randori demonstration. Along with it, I offer a metaphorical translation of the idea. It goes something like this:

Having lined up four or five people, I individually point to them one at a time. “This guy is my email. This one is my boss, nagging at me. This guy is a telephone. Over here, this one is my monthly paperwork at the office. And lastly this guy is a presentation I have to make by the end of the day. Now let’s watch what happens when I try to take them all on at the same time…”

A demonstration ensues and flailing wildly I try to grapple with two or three of my attackers at a time. They pile up quickly and overpower me easily.

Usually breathing hard at this point, I look at the crowd. “This (gasp) is how (gasp) many of us (gasp) feel at (gasp) work (gasp).”

Once I catch my breath I go on, “We have this insane concept called multi-tasking. It’s a myth. An illusion.There’s scientific evidence galore that it doesn’t work. It’s being outlawed in cars because it’s outright dangerous. Yet we don’t need any of the science or laws to know inside that when we multitask we’re erratic and unfocused doing three things poorly rather than one thing well. This is the reality of the human brainand no matter how many devices we wire ourselves up to, we have finite capacity to get things done. When we try to do more or focus on more, quality drops.”

“As an alternative, I recommend dealing with a work day the way we teach dealing with multiple attackers in an Aikido dojo.”

I then line the five guys back up. We begin again. This time I address one at a time ignoring the others. The object of randori is to keep moving and to focus on one person at a time. You also have to be careful not to waste too much energy on any one person. If you meet resistance, it’s sometimes best to move on and come back to that person again later (they’ll be there, just like work and everything else).

NOTE: This is not me or anyone I know. I just thought it was an interesting (if poor quality) video on the execution of randori in Aikido.

Done properly, an individual can fend off multiple people for far longer if they focus on them one at a time. This translates quite literally into the workspace. Focus on one task at a time and do it to completion. Most importantly, do not divide your attention. Check all our email, then put it away, then answer your voice mail and move on after that. Do the presentation. Go talk to the boss. Do your paperwork. With discipline and focus you can get much more done and you work much more efficiently. Focus is obviously integral to putting your best foot forward, yet when we multitask we divide that focus.

The randori approach to getting through a work day takes practice. There are many pressures and distractions to our day – from social networks, to web surfing, to people barging into our offices while we’re trying to get things done. In my experience the wise business person asks people who barge in to come back later. They set aside time for email and Internet surfing and avoid responding every time a message comes in. The majority of these messages don’t truly require immediate attention anyhow and if we’re not careful our devices control us not unlike the bell for Pavlov’s dog.

I offer the randori approach as something to experiment with at the office. Try it for a half a day, or a week. See if it doesn’t change your work patterns and result in better quality to everything you do. At first it will be a concerted effort on your part, but with time it may become the way you do things and you may even find you have a little more energy left after a long day.