Paying Attention

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Mark Osborne’s wonderfully directed film The Little Prince, based on the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, captures the real spirit and beauty of the wonders of childhood and the joys of living 100% in the moment.

“You´re not perceiving what’s out there. You’re perceiving whatever your brain tells you.” ― David Eagleman

Dr. David Eagleman, the notable Neuroscientist and author of the book Incognito: The Secrets Lives of the Brain, showed that time is always relative to our experience. Einstein hinted as much in his own scientific experiments. We also know, at least subconsciously,  that time expands and contracts based on our levels and quality of perception. For instance, whenever we face life threatening situations or novel encounters, time seems to take longer and the memory of it lingers for a more notable overall experience. Car accidents and scary spiders come to mind. So do first dates and big pay raises. More importantly for us artists is that our perception and ability to express our experience of what we see is crucial to our work.

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Infinity by M.C. Escher. Escher’s work is both intriguing, creative and mind-boggling. What is real, what is logical and what is not? Perception is relative and thus experience.

Time, and our level of attention in a sense, are intricately related. Things are hardly objective. We’re more often wrong than right in our estimations of the longevity of events or the size and color of things. Contrast is what helps us identify things and helps us make sense of it. Relativity matters. The quality of our interpretation matters. And when it comes to living, we know that time poorly spent is time that’s forgettable. What doesn’t really grab our attention vanishes into the ether.

“When you kill time, remember that it has no resurrection.” ― A.W. Tozer

Paying attention to things changes everything. Our ability to focus and our sincerity of attention to something changes our relationship with it. Look at our efforts long enough and you can either begin to see what’s not working  or we begin to see in it what we want to see. There’s no laws or rules of logic here. It’s up to us how we respond to the things around us and how we make our art.

Yoda gives Luke SkyWalker a lesson in focus and faith in George Lucas’ landmark 1977 film, Star Wars.

Slowing down to see things clearly and really giving something the due time and thought opens up our ability to perceive but also to receive. Perception is heavily dependent on our reception to the data in front of us and vice versa. It’s why a teacher or a master can see things the student or novice can’t — experienced eyes see farther and deeper. Great artists respond to their art as much as they envision or create it.

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The longingly romantic film In The Mood For Love, starring Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, is a beautiful and moving viewing experience. Auteur Hong Kong film-maker Wong Kar-Wei is notorious for not following a strict outline when filming his scenes yet his movies seem to glide effortlessly and elegantly all the while delivering powerful statements about the human condition.

That said, really paying attention is tough and it’s why attention is something that needs to be practiced — an ability that needs to be developed. It’s why ancient civilizations, from the Native American Indians to the Taoist Chinese, adapted to ways of living that paid great respect to their surroundings — by listening and abiding by the laws of nature. They developed techniques — like meditation, prayer or spiritual dance — so they could attune to its forces and be aligned with the universe, to gain clairvoyance and live conscientiously. It’s not surprising that even today, those who devote regular episodes to such practices achieve greater levels of happiness and fulfillment at greater rates of frequency.

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A visually memorable and profound scene from Kim Ki-Duk’s serene and critically acclaimed 2003 film, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring.

As artists, we need our attention to be razor sharp. The conscious practice of mindful attentiveness helps. In many ways we’re not too different from athletes or musicians or stage actors; we need to perform when it counts and that performance hinges heavily, not only on preparedness and planning, but an acute ability to see and react with clarity and precision. Without such focus, it’s not possible to have any sort of boldness of action in living and being true to ourselves. Too many artists (in both the commercial and fine art camps) scramble mindlessly, hoping only that the mess in front of them becomes something usable. Haphazard approaches often lead to haphazard results.

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Excavation by Willem De Kooning. People get the wrong idea that abstract artists just messed around hoping for something to come to form. There is much deliberation and internalization prior to what seems to look like mere “action” painting. De Kooning, like Franz Kline, Vasily Kandinsky and many others were thinkers who felt very strongly about their ideas and their technique.

Many artists, both young and old, rush through their choices, actions and responses. The young do it out of immaturity, impatience or lack of knowledge, while the old do it out of habit, laziness and loss of inspirational spirit. When this happens, we can’t make the best choices, and hardly ever does it make for something unique or original. Remember that it’s new experiences that jostle our minds and bodies.

In Dr. Eagleman’s discovery of the cognitive phenomenon called repetition suppression, it seems that “once the brain has been exposed repeatedly to the same stimuli, it doesn’t have to expend as much time and energy recognizing it.”  In other words, with new experience the brain makes quite the effort to absorb, interpret and store the information but once it’s recognized, any subsequent repetition of the same stimuli loses its shock power and we begin to formulate shortcuts to save both time and energy. This principle is what makes habits both effective and dangerous. The efficiency created by this biological ingenuity is also what sacrifices the novelty of experience. This is harmful to the artist who is trying to do something new.

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Guernica by Pablo Picasso was his statement about how he felt about the war in his native Spain and is one the most powerful pieces of political art ever created. Much of what makes Picasso so fascinating has a lot to do with his constant reach for new ways of seeing and new ways of interpreting the world around us. Few artists stretched themselves in so many different aspects of visual art.

How do we keep things fresh then? Especially when so much of life seems so regimented and repetitious? How do we fight off our tendencies to just react as usual, short-cutting our experiences?

Dr. Eagleman’s own suggestion to this dilemma is both simple and incredibly profound: engage in life-long learning.  Being a dedicated artist demands everything we’ve got as human beings. You’ve got to engage in it, love it and nurture it. We create our art and it in turn creates us. And this thing —  this way of living, this challenging road towards mastery — will take up an entire lifetime. Learning is hard, but it’s truly the most interesting and fulfilling way to live each and every day. We must allow more moments that force us to think, see and behave differently — and always with a greater mind and more open heart.

“The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.” — Molière

Our biology and our ability to survive owes a lot to habits and building efficiency but it also depends on our ability to innovate and see things anew. We grow by breaking new ground. Creativity is one of the biggest things that separate man from beast. And when the opportunity arises, we must give it our all; we must make it personal. To derive what we can from our direct experience is to accept the challenge that’s directly presented to us.

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Sunbather. British artist David Hockney’s art is intensely personal. He moved to sunny California and painted his experiences there. His paintings consists of people and places he knew intimately and to this day they remain as fresh and innovative as they did when he made them.

Learning encourages physical and direct interaction, both with nature and our fellow human beings. It’s why feedback is important and how we respond to criticism. We also learn when we alter our schedules or our environments. I personally re-arrange my home and studio set up every six to eight months, and each time I do so, it seems that not only do I feel re-invigorated creatively but I’ve actually gained more physical space and openness! (Another skill developed!)

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” — Heraclitus

But as amazing as a change in scenery can do for our minds, the most important thing is how we choose to interpret our circumstances. Learning to live a creative life is in many ways about interpretation — finding ways of seeing it all fresh, with a new mind as much as a new set of eyes. Learning is growth. This is what raises our odds of getting the most out of life. If we do that, anything anywhere at anytime can be exciting and inspiring. Being an artist is both fun and a privilege. So be grateful about choosing a life dedicated to learning, creation and contribution. We just have to remember to pay attention.

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Stanley Kubrick on the set of The Shining. Kubrick was always tackling something new. Visually and thematically he dared and devoted himself to explore as many genres of cinema and human history as he could. His films couldn’t be more diverse, ranging from dark comedy (Dr. Strangelove) and drama (Eyes Wide Shut) to ancient history (Spartacus) and far into the future (2001: A Space Odyssey).

If This, Then That

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To mankind, gears and machinery represent both progress and automation. Their function is decisively simple — it goes one way or the other.

We all deal with problems, large and small, from time to time. More often than not, there just seems to be too many of them. It’s all very overwhelming and yet we know that it’s all connected — failure in one area of work or life is bound to affect another. We know that multi-tasking doesn’t work. A simpler way to approach this dilemma is to have a bit of a strategy in how to approach all these challenges, especially those that force us to act with immediacy.

“IF THIS, THEN THAT” is a tactic to eliminate the hassle from the entire decision-making process. It helps with both the mundane repetitive chores that hound us and sometimes the tougher, more meaningful challenges as well. It ensures that we get things done and that we keep moving forward.  We don’t want to use up all our time and energy for every single task we face. That’s not a wise usage of those rather limited resources.

There is one profound rule to apply however, and that is, we must stop and look before proceeding. We must always gauge the situation first because gaining perspective is paramount to any kind of progress.

“Nature is pleased with simplicity. And nature is no dummy” ― Isaac Newton

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The 13-part scientific documentary series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is a follow-up to Carl Sagan’s marvelous 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which was the milestone documentary that gave us a newfound perspective of our universe and our significance in it.

Here are some basic examples of applying “IF THIS, THEN THAT” to make our lives easier.

ISSUES OF COMPLEXITY

a) IF your work is looking messy, too confusing or hard to read, THEN it’s time to simplify. Take an overall view of the whole shebang. Ask yourself, what it is you’re trying to do? Have you strayed off the main path? If so, what can you remove or reduce to get back to your original vision? How can you simplify your artistic choices so that the essence of it reads while still attaining the levels of depth that you want? Are you listening to the track or the internal direction your body is leaning towards? Did you get external feedback throughout the various phases of work?

This wonderful scene by Supervising Animator Michal Makarewicz disregards complex movement for simplicity. The effort perfectly captures the state of the character’s dilemma. From Pixar’s Inside Out.

b) IF the work is looking bland or flat, THEN perhaps it’s time give it something extra. Here’s an opportunity to step up and do something special and original — the time to dig in for a bit more research and get more feedback. Can a new element be introduced? Or is there a way of adding some texture to your work to make it really sing? How about a change in rhythm or boosting the level of caricature either in shape, timing or attitude? What more can you give of yourself so that you can rest assure knowing that you’ve fulfilled your call of duty? As long as you’re careful not to deviate too much and let the icing ruin the cake so to speak, giving more of yourself is the only way to achieve something spectacular.

Done with careful thought and planning, this Frank Thomas scene is a perfect presentation of contrast, texture and simplicity. From Walt Disney’s Sword In The Stone.

ISSUES OF DIFFICULTY

a) IF the task looks too overwhelming, THEN you must look to reduce either the quantity or quality of what you’re doing. Too many people try to do too much with too little resources. If your deadline is in two weeks, but the work you want to do requires four — and you can’t get that extension — you must redesign you work so that it can be accomplished. Professionals always finish their work. It might be time to take out that extra move or idea you had or reduce the complexity of certain parts that are probably extraneous anyways. Sometimes doing less is more. Doing one thing at a time assures progress. Using the simpler, less original option might actually be the better option. Simplification is a very powerful and underrated concept.

In this marvelous scene by Glen Keane, an incredibly rich and meaningful moment of the story takes place — the deep inner connection of what it means to be human. A lessor animator would’ve tried to do too much. From Walt Disney’s Tarzan, released in 1999.

b) IF the work you’ve done seemed easy or lacking in challenge, THEN you must go back and look for what’s missing. Chances are you saw something you liked and lowered the critical bar in your analysis. You’ve either attained an excessive feeling of accomplishment or you’ve fallen back on you laurels and got formulaic. We’ve all done it from time to time. Rarely is great work accomplished without some sort of serious challenge being met. If you have time and energy here make better use of it otherwise you’ll regret it. If something looks too easy, it’s a glaring sign that you’ve missed something.

“I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” ― Theodore Roosevelt

ISSUES OF FOCUS

a) IF you can’t see straight, THEN you must step away. If you’re tired, dazed or confused, you can be assured your work reflects the same. You can’t do serious work without serious focus. Too many of us today are easily distracted. We’ve losing our ability to focus and mindfully attend to the tasks in front of us, and by default, we’ve become more fatigued, lowering both our stamina and potential at the same time. It’s good to take a time out. Taking a break away from work isn’t laziness, it’s wisdom. How often have you put in tons of overtime in the evening only to realize the next morning that you did absolutely nothing of positive consequence in those extra hours? People max out in terms of performance. Sacrificing endless hours to battle your inability to see or act effectively is never the solution regardless if you’re being paid overtime or not. Doing more bad work ensures only a bigger mess to deal with the next day. Only by gaining perspective can you see the sum of all moving parts.

“We have as many planes of speech as does a painting planes of perspective which create perspective in a phrase. The most important word stands out most vividly defined in the very foreground of the sound plane. Less important words create a series of deeper planes.” — Constantin Stanislavski (Author of An Actor Prepares)

b) IF you’re feeling sharp and energetic, THEN your job is to dive right in. Take advantage of that wonderful feeling or deep inspiration and activate yourself! A visit from the creative muses must not be wasted.  It’s time to grab the brush, move the pen or start animating. If you’re in bed, and great ideas pop into your head, write it down somewhere. Be ready to receive, be ready to perform. A failure to act here — usually caused by inertia or even the sudden onslaught of fear (our left brains like to do this) — will result in not only the loss of the idea or inspiration, but will ingrain in you the habit of laziness or worse, paralysis by analysis.

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Henri Matisse, in his old age, was very much incapacitated by his physical troubles but that didn’t stop him from creating at any time.

In summary, we can’t and shouldn’t always make our decisions in this sort of automatic or binary way — many things require the dedicated time and contemplation to make the right choices. That said, “IF THIS THEN THAT” is a useful tactic in our arsenal to achieving success and happiness. We’ve all been trained to brush our teeth when we wake up — there’s little debate or thinking about the consequences —  we simply do it because the benefits of doing so far out weigh the costs of not doing so. Automating certain processes saves us the strain on the mental and physical resources that our craft demands. Sometimes, the simplest way is the best way.

“Possessions, outward success, publicity, luxury – to me these have always been contemptible. I believe that a simple and unassuming manner of life is best for everyone, best for both the body and the mind.” ― Albert Einstein

Special Guest Interview: Mark Behm

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“Theft” by Animation/Illustration Artist Mark Behm. Personal work done using himself as reference — a common practice among artists in every era.

Today we are privileged to have the multi-talented Mark Behm join us at the Animated Spirit. I’ve known Mark for over 15 years, and he’s one of the most diverse, talented and humble artists in the industry. He can draw, paint, animate, design, model, rigg and program. Seriously, I don’t know what Mark can’t do. He’s animated at the highest levels for feature films at Blue Sky Studios and Dreamworks Animation, and created gorgeous designs as a visual development artist at Valve and Epic Games (where he now serves as a Senior Concept Artist). His work has been showcased in art galleries, “Art Of” books as well as in highly acclaimed collections like Spectrum, which showcases the absolute best in science-fiction illustration. He’s a prolific artist whose spirit and creativity is highly valued in the art community. You’re in for a visual treat!

Watch Mark demo his work live, on his Twitch Stream!


1. Welcome Mark! Thanks for joining us!

Thanks for the opportunity, James!

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“Riddle of Steel.” Personal art by Mark Behm.

2. Can you share a little about yourself, as to where you’re originally from and what your early interests were before becoming an animation artist?

I’m from New Jersey — in the pine barrens east of Philadelphia. My early interests were about the same as what I do during the day.

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Mark Behm artwork for Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder Role Playing Game.

3. What inspired you to be part of the animation industry, and what were those first steps like breaking in?

Toy Story! I was working doing multimedia stuff and freelance illustration. A few artists and I went to see it and I was blown away. It set in motion a plan to make a change. I’d spent my childhood around animation art and defaced all the corners of my notebooks and schoolbooks as little flip-books. I got the Illusion of Life for Christmas when I was 9. I wanted to be in special effects when I grew up. I invested a ton of money in an old SGI workstation and a copy of Maya 1.0 and set to making a reel.

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More Pathfinder Art done for Paizo Publishing by Mark Behm.

Through a friend, I met Chris Gilligan, a stop-motion animator who was starting a NYC animation shop and wanted to mentor some guys in a more traditional way. He asked if I would be interested and I jumped at the chance. I took off work (multimedia artist at the time) twice a week to take a 3 hour bus and subway ride to the studio” to work on mentoring and projects. It didn’t last very long but it solidified my childhood foundation, wet my appetite and focused me on what was important. From there I worked on a series of short physical and dialog clips for my reel. That is what got me working. First in NYC commercial work, then direct-to-video work in Chicago, then my first feature job back in New York at Blue Sky where we met.

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Concept Art for Valve’s DOTA 2 by Mark Behm.

4. You’re one of the rare artists that excel in multiple aspects of this art form; character animation, rigging, modeling, and visual development (concept art). How did that happen?

When I started animating, rigging and modeling was a requirement. If you wanted to animate a character there was only one way: go make one. I don’t enjoy rigging or the technical aspects of modeling but I do enjoy modeling and sculpting in 3D. I like to make stuff and that’s just another creative outlet. I use that skill all the time in vis-dev work.

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Concept work for Valve’s DOTA 2 by Mark Behm.

5. You primarily do concept work now, what made you ultimately decide on this path? and do you miss the other aspects of animation pipeline?

Like I said, I like to make stuff. I’ve been inventing things and drawing heroes and monsters since I was a kid. I went to school for illustration. The whole time I worked in animation I was doing concept art and illustration in a freelance capacity. It’s more like I detoured to work as an animator. An Intentional detour to be sure, but what I do now is more where I belong. When I was animating full time in features, I spend too much of my free time drawing, painting, designing monsters. It was a sign. When you are painting on your tablet PC as you wait for a playblast… you need to start asking why.

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Concept work for Valve’s DOTA 2 by Mark Behm.

I don’t miss animation from a large scale production standpoint. I’d rather reserve it for personal work. I also enjoy the creative and advantageous scheduling aspects of the early part of the pipeline. Everyone is less rushed and stressed. They tend to be more free and creative. A little pressure and touch of fear can be a good motivator but the sharp teeth of a deadline and the ‘suits’ tapping their watches rarely makes for good work.

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Concept Art for Valve’s DOTA 2 by Mark Behm.

Someday I’d like to work on an independent short with a friend. We’ve been talking about it for a decade but we both still have bills to pay. He somehow finds time to do his but I’m too ADD to focus on one big project at the moment.

 

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Hammershot Concept Art done for Epic Games’ Fortnite by Mark Behm.

6. Tell us a bit about your work day. How do you get started each day? What’s your routine?

At Epic Games we have Dailies with our art director just like we do in film. I get in early, work on whatever is on my plate and maybe go to Dailies if I have something to show or want to keep up on what’s going on. After that I spend the rest of the day drawing and painting — and sometime modeling if I have some hard-surface thing to work out and 3d might be faster. Go out to lunch w the guys. 2pm is workout time. After that the AD comes around to desks if you have something else to show. Work on changes and new stuff till I go home. I have anywhere from a single task to a half dozen to work on at any given time. It might be a character, creature, costume, environment, or hard-surface design. That kind of variety is something I love about this part of production. I have been lucky enough to work on both Paragon and Fortnite, so I get to play with two stylistically divergent worlds.

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Epic Games’ Paragon Khaimera character designed by Mark Behm.

7. You’ve produced a book and continue to creative work outside of production. What inspires you to keep creating?

When I produced the images for the book I was in a particularly un-creative point in my career. At the time I felt my directors were getting more and more conservative in their decision-making processes.The focus seemed to shift from idea and performance to polish and finish. Watching great work from all my peers get neutralized in Dailies was hard. As a creative person — that energy had to go somewhere. So I spent all my down-time on 2D art. I didn’t even realize it was happening for a long time. I noticed this trend in my behavior at some point and have since found it’s been a reliable indicator that something is off with my day job.

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Concept Art for Wizards of the Coast’s Dundgeons and Dragons by Mark Behm.

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Concept Art for Wizards of the Coast’s Dundgeons and Dragons by Mark Behm.

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Concept Art for Wizards of the Coast Dundgeons and Dragons by Mark Behm.

8. Being an artist is challenging. As a family man, how do you balance yourself in the face of all the external, as well as personal demands?

Yes – something has to give! I made sure it wasn’t my family or my relationship with my wife, or my art. So it was sleep. I tend to need less sleep than most people and I often take even less than I need. Even when I’m not working I don’t like to put the day away! It’s not good or healthy, but it’s what I do. I think I inherit it from my uncle. I’d go to bed — him reading in the living room at 2am. I get up at 7 — he’s up reading in the same chair. Wait — did he change clothes? Can’t remember. Does he sleep? I never found out.

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A beautiful environment piece done for “Sketch A Day” by Mark Behm.

9. A hypothetical; if you were to choose anyone in history that you could apprentice under, who would it be?

Oh there’s a new one every couple months and many are still alive and younger than I am! I’m a big fan of the apprentice/mentor relationship model when done right. As it implies the critical element of skill-development rather than just knowledge acquisition and accumulation.

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Creature” by Mark Behm. Another personal piece displaying Mark’s lovely sense of color and light.

Can I have a few?! I’d love to sit in and watch Norman Rockwell’s work in the 30’s. And J.C. Leyendecker. And Mucha. And Sargent. Wait – Frazetta!! How much juice does this time machine have?

Another live video demo of Mark’s marvelous working process. Absolutely amazing!

10. Thank you so much for your time Mark! We look forward to seeing more of your awesome work!

To see more of Mark’s artistry, visit his Website or his various accounts at:

Facebook

Twitter

Twitch

One Thing At A Time — The Power of Less

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The danger and complexity of Wile E. Coyote’s plans (and his use of ACME products) were a sure sign of imminent failure. Images courtesy of Warner Bros.

“The more simply you see, the more simply you will render. People see too much, scatteringly.” — Robert Henri

Less isn’t more, but it can be more effective. The modern world may not agree, but our obsession with doing more, acquiring more and being busy all the time hasn’t exactly created more happiness. As artists, constant doing doesn’t necessarily equate to greater success or creativity. We need to be present and focused to be at our best. Our art demands it.

“It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.” — Aristotle

If there’s one word in the 21st century that haunts us it’s multi-tasking. The excuse is that we’ve got so much to do with so little time that we all have to multi-task. We sadly think that by doing it all, and doing it all at once, is balance. We couldn’t be more wrong.

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Cartoon strip from Scott Adam’s comic Dilbert.

Science has shown time and time again, that multi-tasking doesn’t work. Many people claim they can multi-task, but what they’re actually doing is jumping from one task to another while doing none in particular at any level of respectable competence or honest attention. Some individuals can appear to juggle many things at once successfully — switching quickly between activities — but a majority of individuals fail and tend to do so spectacularly. Juggling is a rare skill which can be learned, but regardless of our adeptness, there is always a risk and price associated with it.

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The Letterman Techroom at Lucas Film in San Francisco. Render farms are a huge collection of processors designed to handle all the rendering needs of an animation studio. Photo by Peter Sciretta.

What about computers? Don’t they multi-task? Aren’t we just computers? Well, even computers don’t multi-task — they operate by time splicing which consists of giving a very short period of time (usually milliseconds) to one task, then a few to the next and then to the next and so on. In other words, even the fastest computers in the world only switch from one task to another, only they do so at very high speeds. Now, computer systems with multiple CPU’s connected and working together are able to drive multiple programs or calculations at the same time. In animation studios, we all know the look and size of those render farms (stored in that one big room no one dares to enter except the IT guys). Substantial computing requires substantial power.

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The two halves of the human brain. Each side has its own priorities and responsibilities. Illustration by VaXzine.

As humans, at least for now, we only have one brain (one processor) and even then that one processor is split into two halves — a right hemisphere (for gestalt, social and creative tasks) and a left hemisphere (for logical, analytical and mathematical calculation). Moreover, these two halves of our one brain don’t seem to operate so well together or even at the same time. One tends to dominate over the other with the balance of power constantly shifting at different rates among different individuals.

“It’s very hard to get your heart and your mind in the same place.” — Woody Allen

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Image from Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss. Are you also juggling too many things of different size, weight and complexity in your life?

Multi-tasking is like juggling eggs. With two hands, we can hold on to two eggs quite easily even if we can only feel the weight and texture of one egg at a time. Once we add more eggs, we need to keep our hands moving in order to keep them eggs in mid-air. This can be fun, if not entertaining, at least for a short period of time. The more eggs we add however, the more speed and focus you need to place on the act of juggling while risking dropping any or all of the eggs. The fun stops and the stress rises. Not only does multi-tasking rob us of the entire physical and relational experience we have with the object(s) in our grasp, we also exponentially increase both the size and the odds of failure. We’re talking eggs in this example, but we could easily swap these eggs for more substantial things, such as our job, our health, time with family or our personal happiness. A significant fail in any one of those departments have incalculable effects on the others.

Here then, is a list of some of the benefits of doing less:

1) Increased attention (focus)

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Archery requires the utmost in focus and strength. Here, Errol Flynn stars as the legendary archer-hero, Robin Hood in the 1938 classic film of the same title directed by Michael Curtiz.

“Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.” — Alexander Graham Bell

When we reduce our attention to fewer things, more our of creative and physical energy gets directed to the immediate challenge before us. With decreased distractions, we give our minds and bodies the opportunity to get in sync, coordinate and align together for maximal performance. When the path is clear and empty of distraction, deviation is limited and the job is actually easier.

2) Achieving simplicity

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Picasso’s remarkabe sculpture, Head of a Bull, which is made out of bicycle parts is perfect in its simplicity.

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak” — Hans Hofmann

This is true in art as it is in life. To accomplish the simple things well is often the hardest. It’s why the greatest performers, when they reach their peak, act and express simply. Their work is clear, decisive and remarkably effective. This is true in sports, music, and the arts. The masters always seem to be able to slow time down while expressing themselves with directness and clairvoyance.

3) Seeing the bigger picture

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Artist Franz Kline was a very skilled, traditional easel painter who discovered a new way of painting to address his individual needs and the needs of an emerging America. By venturing into abstract expression, he and his fellow modernists helped define a new era of art, one that was grand in size and remarkably bold, much like its homeland.

“Big thinking precedes great achievement.” — Wilferd Peterson

With less on the table, it’s far easier to see what’s at stake. We can access problems, pitfalls and make better plans. We gain time to question our desires, assess our options and by default decrease the tendency to rush into action, which in turn of course, decreases the odds of failure and having to do it all over again. As artists, we don’t want to repeat the past. Doing something new has always been the aim of artist, both past and present. We are not here to copy or mimic. We want to boldly step forward. To do this, we must step back and look at what’s really here or there.

4) Remaining flexible

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The strength of bamboo is in its flexibility and is both commonly used and revered by Asian societies.

“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”  — Albert Einstein

With less obligations, we’re also more flexible to adapt to unexpected challenges that are sure to happen. Taking on less things opens up our reserves for handling adversity. The best people aren’t necessarily the ones who can do more, but those who are most adaptable to the forces at hand. In our age of advancing technology and accelerated human and economic activity, flexibility is a powerful asset.

5) Improved learning & performance

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The great Bruce Lee practiced a multitude of techniques and trained with all kinds of equipment, but he always worked only on one thing at a time, fully committed, fully focused.

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” — Bruce Lee

We gain both effectiveness and efficiency when we’re focused.  We learn better when we give things the time that they need. And when we repeat those tasks our skills develop, making us stronger and more adept at handling similar challenges in the future. This is the essence of practice — the ritual of rehearsing our minds and bodies on singular tasks for excellence. It’s the foundation of greatness.

6) Ability to see the details that matter

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The Artist’s Mother by Lucien Freud. Freud’s pain-staking approach to painting revels in the details. They make the picture.

“There’s something in the very small minutia of life that tells us something about the big, big picture that we see every day all over the place, and so I think the more specific and creative and revelatory you are in the micro, the more powerful the macro will be.” — Philip Seymour Hoffman

When we are looking at too much or doing too much, we simply can’t see or feel the details. The mind needs to be clear and calm to do so. If you multi-task, it can be pretty much guaranteed that you’re missing out on the easily overlooked, but important details. Sometimes these seemingly minute concerns, are like that tiny screw that holds the whole thing together. We all know that a slight miscalculation or misstep here or there can be the difference between success or failure in our art. Life is oftentimes very fragile and temperamental. We need to know when things matter, no matter how small they may appear.

7) Higher level of engagement

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Bill Waterson’s funny and often poignant comic book series, Calvin and Hobbes.

“Never mistake activity for achievement.” — John Wooden

Being constantly busy or doing a million things at once robs us of the experience of doing. It’s like cooking ten dishes at once and not getting the chance to taste or eat any of them. All presence is gone when attention is so fleeting, and such is the state we’re in constantly when we attempt to multi-task. To feel presence, we have to be present. One thing at a time assures us of living in the now.

8) Greater fulfillment & more memorable experience

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Arnold Schwarzenegger, seen here during a break from his training enroute to his 6th Mr. Olympia title. From the definitive film on bodybuilding, Pumping Iron.

The most powerful thing to emerge from doing one task at a time with complete and utter devotion is that we get more out of it, both immediately and in the long-term. When we’re fully engaged, we’re completely absorbed and sight, sound, touch and feel become ingrained in our minds. How wonderful it is engrave our sweetest experiences into memory! Think back to the many mindless, busy tasks that we’ve all succumbed to in our past and you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about here.

Many of our actions and feelings are so fleeting when we’re not fully engaged. I don’t remember a single thing from my numerous hours studying organic chemistry or macroeconomic equations in University where I was often going through the motions. They feel blank, like time and energy sucked into a black hole. But I always  remember the time when I was so immersed in my evening figure drawing class that all the existed for me was the model and the drawing. When I “awoke” from my trance, I was alarmed to see that the entire class was standing behind me watching me draw. Singular focus has great power.

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“So much to do and so little time.” Such are the words of the Mad Hatter from Walt Disney’s interpretation of Lewis Carol’s Alice In Wonderland.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with shifting from one task to another — we must all do that once in a while or else we couldn’t function. Staying with any one activity for too long can also be taxing and unsustainable. But our aim most of the time should be to tackle one sustained challenge at a time. Life is complex enough and we’re all riding this wave towards the unknown, hoping to grow, hoping to battle through the tough times and enjoying the ride while it lasts. Why complicate each and every precious moment with ever more stress and responsibility by trying to do too much in too little time?

We mustn’t feel obligated to rush or to multi-task just because everyone else is doing it. We can choose our own way — one of presence and fulfillment — doing one thing, one moment at a time.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” — Viktor E. Frankl