Several years ago, I discovered Mr. Bob Ross. He was a painter and had a show called The Joy of Painting on PBS. If you don’t know Bob Ross by his name, you almost certainly would by his picture. Bob had a well-kept beard and an amazing ‘fro (turns out Mr. Ross hated his hair style, but kept it for branding purposes). The setting of the show was very simple. It was just Mr. Ross, his canvas and stand, all set in front of a black background. The only visible colors were the ones on Bob or the colors he put on the canvas.
At the outset of each show, Bob would thank his viewers for watching and would invite them to join him in painting whatever picture he had in mind that day. In a soft, soothing voice, he would explain what color(s) he was using and what he was painting at that moment in time. Rarely, if ever, did Mr. Ross provide a complete description of what scene he was creating. He always seemed content to focus on whatever he was painting at that moment. When he was painting the sky, he focused on the sky; when he was painting a mountain, he focused on the mountain; when he was painting a tree, he focused on that tree. I have no doubt that Bob had some sort of vision of what he was trying to create in mind, but he didn’t lose the trees in the forest. Every detail had its place in the painting and, therefore, was the focus of his attention at the appropriate time.
I have a ton of respect for Bob Ross. I wish I was able to see a picture in my mind and then create it on canvas with my hands. Recently, I’ve found myself equally impressed with his focus. Focus is something that many of us struggle with in our high pace, hi-tech world. There are so many things demanding our attention that we have a hard time giving significant focus to any of them. We live in an age of great distraction.
While we want to believe this multi-tasking makes us more effective and efficient, the data actually shows it cuts our output in half.
A word that is often thrown around these days is “multi-tasking.” We don’t believe we are distracted. Instead, we believe we are able to divide our attention between multiple things at once. We believe multi-tasking allows us to work more efficiently and connect more expansively. Recent studies, however, show this is not the case. In an article in Psychology Today, Dr. Nancy K. Napier writes, “Much recent neuroscience research tells us that the brain doesn’t really do tasks simultaneously, as we thought (hoped) it might. In fact, we just switch tasks quickly.” She goes on to note that our brains go through a start/stop process every time we switch between various points of focus. While we want to believe this multi-tasking makes us more effective and efficient, the data actually shows it cuts our output in half.
The potential applications for this information are many, but I would like to focus on our relationships. The means for connection and conversation are many in our world today. It is quite possible to juggle conversations in person, through text message, and on the host of social media platforms that are available. May I suggest that we don’t need more means of communication and connection. Rather, we need to learn to lock into one medium at a time. We need to stop believing we can focus on everyone and everything at once, and instead relearn how to be here now. As is often the case, the old cliché is true; “Every day is a gift, that’s why it’s called the present.”
When we focus our attention on everybody, we really focus on nobody.
I wonder what would happen if we treated each of our relationships with the same care and focus that Bob Ross treated the details of his paintings. What would happen if we allowed our focus to rest exclusively on somebody rather than everybody every once in a while? I have to believe it would improve our connections with one another. The quantity of our relationships may appear to decrease, but the quality would almost certainly increase. I’m not saying we should ignore anybody, but when we focus our attention on everybody, we really focus on nobody. It’s good to see the whole forest, but if we’re going to paint a quality picture, we need to focus on the trees.