When I was 22, I was hired as an actor to perform a one-woman show about female mathematicians and scientists. I drove around the suburbs of Sydney with props, costumes and set crammed into my Toyota Corolla, performing to 14-year old school kids who were at best disinterested, at worst boorish.
My costume was a feat of engineering, designed in layers so that the transition between each of the six characters I played was signalled by the sound of velcro strips being torn apart. A mini-skirt transformed into an ankle-length dress, a jaunty jacket became a cape. The 20 seconds or so that it took me to locate the right tabs, adjust my clothing, smooth down my hair and remember which accent was coming next were exquisitely stressful. On more than one occasion Rosalind Franklin’s opening sentences were uttered in a French accent as Marie Curie overstayed her welcome.
Many career moves later, and I still find myself transitioning frantically from one role to another multiple times a day. Parent, business owner, coach, friend, daughter … most days costume changes are the least of my worries. As I scramble between school drop-offs, client meetings, friends-in-crisis and half-finished emails, my performance in each role is wobblier than the last. By the end of the day I feel I need at least 24 hours in the wings.
And these are not roles that one can abandon at whim, nor allocate to an understudy. But I do have a major advantage over the solo actor; I can transition between one role and another out of the public eye. And so that’s what I do. I find focus in the space between the roles, however short. There’s no velcro, now. No 14-year olds praying for a costume-fail. I can take 90 seconds (when I remember to), and focus on my role transition.
On any given day I estimate I manage to find focus in about 30% of my transitions. Here are the practices I’ve found work best for me thus far (in that 1. they’re simple enough so I that actually do them and 2. when I do them they have the desired effect of focusing my mind on what matters most).
- Packing up 10 minutes before I leave work so I can list my priorities for the following day, farewell my colleagues with civility and depart without leaving my phone/sunglasses/purse on my desk (okay, so this one happens maybe 20% of the time).
- Every time I get in the car spending a moment reflecting on the activity in which I’ve just been engaged, and noting anything I need to remember, think about or savour (I use my iPhone notes app for this purpose, but there are plenty of more sophisticated options available).
- Before I get out of the car, taking 30 seconds to think about what I’m about to do, and identifying an intention for the next activity.
- When I find myself tipping into freneticism, asking ‘what’s my intention for this activity?’ followed by ‘what do I need to do now to fulfil that intention?’. If I haven’t created an intention, it helps to ask ‘what’s my priority role in this moment?’.
- Pretty much any time I can, taking 10 slow deep breaths. This involves repeatedly interrupting my right hand’s reflex to reach for my phone when I’m in a queue, or waiting for someone else to get off the phone. The deep breaths focus my attention: my phone will inevitably deplete it.
Go on. Try this last one.