How many threads can you hold?

This article is about attention and focus, in your own life and the life of the teams you lead. Attention is a precious commodity, for you, for people you manage and for teams you lead.

Here’s what journalist and author Kare Anderson recently said about attention in a Harvard Business Review blog post:

Giving and receiving undivided attention, even briefly, is the least that one individual can do for another — and sometimes the most. And yet, attending to others doesn’t just help them — it helps us, by evoking responses that help the listener feel cared for, useful, and connected to the larger world.


Everyone knows that focus is a good thing. Being able to shut out distractions leads to concentration on the task at hand. Concentration enables you to complete the task in a shorter time than when you’re distracted. And usually, work that is done while you’re concentrating is done with higher quality

There can be more to focus than simply concentration right now. I also use “focus” to mean sustained attention over a longer time. Not necessarily all of my attention, but enough attention to be sure that an object of my focus never falls into the crevice of forgetfulness. I call each of these objects “threads,” because I visualize them as a continuous filament residing somewhere in my attention space all of the time.

For example, right now I’m aware that I have an article to write, that I’m on my way to visit a client who has equipment for me to view and test, that my spouse expects a phone call from me when I arrive at my destination tonight, and that I’m going to write up a marketing plan for my mentor this week. Each of these 5 threads has a portion of my attention, even though writing is occupying 90% of my conscious focus right now.

If you visualize all of your projects, plans and obligations as threads, then you can imagine that you hold each thread in a (virtual) hand, and that you follow up on each thread periodically as time goes by. It doesn’t matter how time you allocate to each thread, as long as you don’t forget about any of them.

How many threads can you follow at a time?

I believe you can only follow a certain number of threads at a time. So when there are new things you want to take up as ongoing activities, you may need to drop something else.

Some of these threads may involve multiple activities, but the key is that I can visualize or imagine each one as just one “thing” that I’m relating to. In my personal plans, I try not to have more than 5 threads at a time. You may be able to handle more of them. How to tell? If you ever forget a thread, then you’re probably holding on to too many.

Here’s some of the magic of visualizing threads: When you want something new in your life, such as a better way to exercise or a new relationship, all you have to do is pick up a thread that represents that new thing. Without necessarily committing a lot of time to it, you simple guarantee it a regular place in your attention space by allocating a thread to it. Then as long as you hold on to the thread, your will naturally find that the thread strengthens and grows and becomes a more significant part of your life.

What this means in real life is that habits you’re trying to establish, if they are part of a thread, become stronger and stronger as time goes by. And activities that you’re learning to be good at become more natural, requiring less effort, the longer you practice them.

Threads for a manager or project leader

If you’re leading a team or managing a group or project, you can visualize threads for your team or department. By asking a set of questions, perhaps one question per thread, you check on whether the team is still holding on to each thread that is key to project success.

You have to listen to the responses to your questions, of course. And when you hear a response that raises alarms in your mind, you take action. There are two types of alarms:

(1) when the person responding doesn’t appear to take the question (or the thread) seriously; in this case you have to take action with the person to find out why or to teach the person what is an acceptable response; and

(2) when the response indicates that the thread is off-track or has been dropped; in this case you may need to intervene more broadly to discover what has happened or failed to happen.

If you teach your team-members about threads, then you can just ask about each thread that the member is following, what they do to keep up with the thread, and how they view the future of the thread.

Arranging things so that you can visualize the key threads can simplify your life and the lives of people around you. The result can be a more focused and productive life.


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