A while back I wrote that you should never practice anything more than once. There is a corollary to this, that you should never do more than one thing at a time. We live in world that bombards us with stimuli and urges us to try to do everything, and do it all at the same time. Society seems to frown on being quiet and focused. Multitasking is praised and held up as some kind of ideal form of functioning, when the reality is that far different. We are all likely to fall victim to it though. It’s just too easy in modern society, when we can be talking on the phone, working on the computer, eating lunch and texting with our kids all that same time, and I’m as guilty of falling into this trap as anyone is.
The truth is though, we’re at our best when we do one thing at a time. I was reminded of this while reading a very nice piece about giving things 100%. One of the great things we work on in the dojo is just doing one thing at a time. Trust me on this, if you try to do Judo randori and even think about anything else at the same time, you will quickly find yourself flying through the air and the floor leaping up to smack you between the shoulder blades. You just can’t do more than one important thing at a time.
We work on developing this focus and our abilities every time we’re in the dojo, and hopefully we are applying this and developing it even more when we are not in the dojo. In the dojo we are trying to learn very complex skills that require coordinating our entire bodies and getting all the parts working together. The first part we have to train is our mind. We have to learn to just be in the dojo doing the technique or kata that we are practicing. We can’t be making a shopping list or planning dinner or figuring out tomorrow’s work schedule or deciding what to watch on TV tonight. We have to in the dojo practicing.
We want to let go of all the other things we could be doing, and do this one thing we have chosen to be doing. Initially, the one thing we are focusing on my be how we walk, or how we hold our head or how we swing the sword. Over time, with focus (!) we can integrate these things so holding our head in the appropriate position and how we walk become one thing. Then we get better at swinging the sword so we are holding our head and bodies in good posture while walking and swinging the sword in one action that we are focusing on. Or it is drawing our partner slightly off her base as we interpose our foot between her foot and its next targeted step while maintaining our own balance, posture and proper movement.
No matter how far I progress, if I try to do more than one thing at a time, even if it is just thinking about something other than my physical activity, my physical activity suffers. In the dojo, this means I get thrown during Judo or hit with a stick during Jodo or whacked with a sword during kenjutsu. I’m better at focusing and just doing one thing than I used to be, but I still have a long way to go until I’m satisfied.
The surprising thing is that the more we work on focusing on just doing one thing, the better we get at everything. With practice our ability to focus and concentrate improves, and it gets easier to let distractions float by without giving them our attention. As we get better at this, we get better at mastering whatever it is that we are actually doing. The time in the dojo is concentrated focusing time, whether we are doing judo or kenjutsu or iaido or whatever. As we get better at focusing that plugs into better training results. We get closer to achieving the goal of flow, or mushin, where we are just there, doing what we are doing without overthinking it and without being bothered by outside thoughts.
I really recommend “The Art Of Learning” by Josh Waitzkin. He does a phenomenal job of describing the real work that goes into getting to a state of mushin or flow. In addition, he is a great story teller who is just plain enjoyable to read. Getting to a state of flow or mushin is not an easy process, but he does a nice job of showing how to get there. If we try to do more than one thing at a time though, it’s an unattainable goal. Multitasking just takes us down a road that leads further and further from the goal.
Don’t be lured into trying to multitask. We know it’s a siren song that will wreck learning in the dojo and our ability to get things done outside the dojo. Multitasking doesn’t work. Just do one thing at a time, and then you can do it well.