Article: Butterflies and Postage Stamps: Distracted or Purposeful?

I was an avid reader growing up. I’ve read the Little House on the Prairie series probably 30 times and an unknown number of Black Beauty and Nancy Drew novels. I remember sitting for hours at a time, in the corner of our living room in my daddy’s favorite recliner, absorbed in the stories. My mother would come fuming into the living room occasionally, demanding, “Didn’t you hear me call you??” I would look at her, confused, as I came back to reality, and answer honestly, “No, mommy I didn’t.” And that was the complete truth! 

That level of concentration is very hard to achieve today. There are so many things competing for our attention in the workplace, that it’s often very difficult to concentrate. Do you have “half-done” projects all over your office and your home? Do you get distracted easily and tend to blow like the wind in a many different directions? Do you continually talk to yourself about all the things you need to do (“I don’t know…do I talk to myself?”)?

If so, this article is for you. There is a fine line between ineffective distractedness and effective juggling. The former is created by Default, and the latter is created by Design. I call the ineffective type the “Butterfly” and the effective type the “Postage Stamp.” A Butterfly randomly flits from task to task. A Stamp sticks to one thing until it gets there. 

Let’s describe the Butterflies first, so it will be easily to distinguish them from the Stamps. Here’s a sample scenario: “I’m going to go to the grocery store. Wait, I should make a list. Put my keys down. Go through pantry. Yikes, this place is a mess. Throw out some stale chips, combine snacks, and put Oreos in a Ziploc bag. Whew, I’m hot. Take off coat. Okay, milk, bread, eggs, ah, darn my pencil broke. Go to study to sharpen. Ooops, this letter needed to go out today. I should stop by the mailbox on my way to the grocery store. Sit at computer to get address of client. Notice that I have seven unread messages. I wonder what’s in here? Here’s one from my sister with a link to a site. Click. Click. Click. Cool. Wait, the address. Write letter. Back to kitchen. What was I doing? Shoot! Pencil. Back to study. I should just keep pens in the kitchen. Sort pencil holder to find some spare pens. Back to kitchen. Put pens in drawer. Clean out old coupons. Yikes, finish list. I’d better go to the bathroom first. Bathroom. Coat. You know…if I ran the dishwasher, the dishes will be clean when I get back. Dishes. Notice grime in cracks of tile, gross. Spray with cleaner. Scrub. Scrub. Okay, I’m ready to go. Hey, where are my keys? Phone rings…I wonder who that is? Oh it’s mom…I’d better make sure everything’s okay. Yack yack. Hang up. Darn, it’s too late to go to the store now. I’ll do it first thing tomorrow.…”

This Butterfly flitted around from place to place and never made it to the grocery store or mailed the letter, the two most important things at that time. The dishes are clean, the grime is gone, and mom is happy, but those things weren’t the true priorities of the moment. However, this Butterfly has the sensation of having worked hard from being so busy. They don't stay focused and concentrate on what must get done. Butterflies experience a “flurry of activity” from doing a lot but accomplishing little.

Stamps, on the other hand, are very purposeful in their activities and can juggle many things. They get one thing started, and then purposely switch to something else for a time. They know when and why to switch back to the original task. Here’s a sample scenario: “Okay, in the next half hour, I’ve got to book this airfare, review this report, and load this software on the computer. Let’s see…start the install. Let that run. A new email; let it go. Call the airline. Hold. Put on headphones so I can write. Start reading report. Hello? Put sticky note where I left off. Make reservations. Remember that I need to call to confirm my meeting for tomorrow. Write it down and go back to task. Glance at computer and click OK. Finish install and registration. Continue reading report. Co-worker walks in with interruption. Listen. Low priority. Schedule phone appointment for tomorrow at 3:20. Back to report, write comments. Check. Now, I’m going to handle email…and…what was it? Good thing I wrote that reminder down.”

Stamps stick to the task at hand and don’t get distracted by a million different things while working. They don’t let themselves get distracted by brain traffic, emails, or interruptions. In the first scenario, a Stamp would not have checked email, surfed the web, done the dishes, cleaned the grime, or talked to mom. 

Are you a Butterfly or a Stamp? There are many benefits to being a Stamp:

ê Output is increased. You simply get more done when you are 100% attuned to your task. You’ll get more letters written and more projects completed

ê You perform optimally and do your best work. If you are giving your total attention to something, the quality will be better. Isaac Newton said, “If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient attention than to any other talent.”

ê The time invested in projects is decreased. If you don’t feel like doing something in the first place (like paying bills), wouldn’t you rather have it over in an hour instead of stretching it out over three? 

ê Less rework. Your focus reduces the time it would have taken you to correct the mistakes and omissions that are a byproduct of inattention.

ê Peace of mind is enhanced. There is an old legend about a man who travels the world searching for the meaning of life. One day he climbs a high mountain to a monastery to get the advice of a monk who is reputed to be the wisest man on earth. When asked for the secret to happiness, the monk replies simply, “DO whatever you’re doing.” 

In other words, become totally immersed in whatever you are experiencing or doing. I know some people who always seem to be “somewhere else.” Do you know anyone like that? They may be with you physically, but their minds are a million miles away, thinking about some meeting, worrying about that errand, or trying to figure out what someone meant when they said… As a result they often feel frazzled. 

How do you become less of a Butterfly and more like a Stamp? Practice! When you know you're off task, get into the habit of self-correction: "I really shouldn't be doing this right now. Get back on task!" If you think of something that needs to be done while you're working on a higher priority task, write it down (paper or electronic) to remember it, and get back at the task at hand. If you get interrupted, use a sticky note to write a note to yourself about your last thought before you switch.

Send me your ideas on how you stay focused on your work, concentrate, keep from flitting about and getting distracted, or juggle effectively. I’ll share them with our subscribers with your first name and last initial only.

© Copyright 2003 Laura Stack, MBA, CSP. All rights reserved. Portions of this newsletter may be reprinted in your organization or association newsletter, provided the following credit line is present:

Laura M. Stack, MBA, CSP, is “The Productivity PRO,"® helping people leave the office earlier, with less stress, and more to show for it. She presents keynotes and seminars on time management, information overload, and personal productivity. Contact her at 303-471-7401 or [email protected].