I’ve realised lately that most of my work happens in two distinct modes. Scanning and deep focus.
Scanning is when I’m responsive, agile, on the ball, adapting to what’s around me. When I’m in scanning mode I am quick. I can respond to emails, turn around enquiries and answer journalists’ requests with lightning speed. And that can feel great. To know that no-one’s waiting for me, that I’m surprising and delighting people simply by getting in touch, and I’m ticking things off before they’ve even had a chance to touch my to-do list, let alone gather dust.
But when I’m constantly in scanning mode, something changes. I begin to feel restless and agitated, like the more I do, the less it seems to matter. The busier the day becomes, the less I’m sure of what I’ve actually achieved.
And a weird thing happens. My brain actually starts to scan more – for more quick wins, more fires to fight, more links to click and more messages to respond to. The more I scan, the less satisfying the work, and yet the more addicted I become to scanning. Like a craving that I keep feeding, that leaves me more and more unsatisfied.
On the other hand, there’s the deep focus work.
The kind of work that requires your concentration for more than a few minutes, more than the first thought that comes into your head, work that’s less about ‘picking’ your brains and more about drilling deep.
This is the work that actually brings me joy. The creative work. The untangling of thoughts. The penny drop moments of insight. The conversations that change everything.
And yet when I spend too long in scanning mode, this deep focus can be frustratingly hard to reach. It’s like every time I try dive deep, something drags me back to the surface. A last minute request, an urgent crisis, my unwitting reputation for fighting fires catching up with me, or more often myself, scratching that itch to scan and check in just one more time.
That’s when I know I need to retrain my brain. Actively protect myself from external distractions by unplugging and practising stealth and camouflage, but it’s also when I need to practice delayed gratification.
My son asked me to time him the other day. His challenge was to see if he could sit still for a minute at the dinner table. Several times, he got carried away in conversation, and found himself out of his seat. Several times, he had a thought and found his feet following that thought before he had even realised. We had a lot of fun catching him out (and he caught himself several times too). But when he eventually made it until the timer went off, he cheered – then stayed in his seat for the rest of the meal. Somehow the itch to move had passed, and he was settled.
My brain works the same. When it becomes addicted to scanning, I can find myself distracted without noticing. But if I persist, if I insist on delaying that instant gratification of scratching that itch, and keep bringing my attention gently but firmly back to where it needs to be, after a while I find myself immersed. Lost in the flow, deep in focus.
And when I resurface, I’m pleasantly surprised by how natural it feels, how the urge to check has subsided, and in its place is a sense of calm, and choice. Perhaps I’ll check in now, I think. And when I do, I realise nothing remarkable has happened. Nothing’s changed. The world has carried ticking along, but in the meantime, I’ve been somewhere amazing, deep in my world.
Most of us have work that requires us to be in scanning mode, as well as work that needs much deeper focus.
The tricky part is switching between the two. If we’re always in deep focus, those small things pile up and become a rude awakening. But if we’re always scanning, we don’t get the chance to dive deep, into the work that really matters, the work that calls the best out of us, and gives us the most satisfaction.
And when we’ve been stuck in scanning mode for too long, it might seem like the world has conspired against us, that the nature of our work or our industry is such that we can’t stop scanning, but the truth is, the biggest conspirator to that reality is ourselves. Our own belief and our brain’s addiction that holds us prisoner to perpetual scanning.
If that sounds familiar to you, here’s my invitation to you. Give yourself an opportunity to dive deep this week. Whether it’s for half an hour or half a day. Persist past the itch to scan, shut off the outside world and dive deep into your own world. And see what happens.