This week, I had a unique experience at work - the opportunity to focus on one project for two days straight! This is far from the norm for me as I'm usually switching from project to project and being interrupted by one "fire" after another all day long. It's difficult to get any one project completed (let alone completed well) because there are so many projects and so many urgent little things that take my attention away from the important tasks. I can almost see you all nodding your heads in agreement - this battle between the important and the urgent coupled with the sheer volume of expectations placed on each one of us in both our professional and personal lives is almost an epidemic in our society.
When I was forced into focusing on an important project it felt odd, and a little wrong, to put everything else to the side and do just one thing, but it was AMAZING! I felt more clarity and forward momentum than I'd felt in a very long time. Interestingly, because I'd been thinking about one thing all day, my mind just kept on working efficiently even after I was "done" for the day. I had ideas and worked out problems in my head overnight much more easily than I would have if my mind would have been all over the place during the day as it usually is.
Those of us writing resumes in the early 2000's probably all listed multi-tasking as one of our strengths. Being able to do many things at once was looked at as desirable. Since then, a lot of research has been published to debunk that myth of multi-tasking. Dave Crenshaw says in his book, The Myth of Multitasking: How "Doing It All" Gets Nothing Done, "Remember this rule: the more responsibility you have, the more hats you wear, the more likely you are to become inefficient." You may be thinking, but if I don't do at least some things at the same time, I'll never get anything done! I hear ya, but stop to consider what you could accomplish and how fast you could accomplish it if you did only one thing at a time.
Productivity coach, Marcey Rader, describes different types of tasking methods in one of her blog posts. Multi-tasking is truly doing two things at once, and since only 2% of the population can actually do this - stop trying! What the rest of us are doing is called switch-tasking. Rader describes switch-tasking as "juggling two tasks by refocusing attention back and forth and losing time and progress in the switch." Switch-tasking makes us 30-40% LESS productive because we are switching our focus about every 3 minutes. There are some tasks that can be done as background tasks which do allow us to complete more than one thing at a time. A great example is listening to music while running or folding laundry while watching TV. Listening to music and watching TV are done in the background, while the other task is done in the foreground.
"Multi-tasking is truly doing two things at once, and since only 2% of the population can actually do this - stop trying!"
So, how do we realistically create an atmosphere where we can focus on one thing at a time? I think this starts with remembering that you're in charge of you (one of my early blog posts talks about this in depth.) I'm the one who thinks I need to do dishes, do laundry, help with homework, post to social media, and talk on the phone all at once - no one makes me do that. I am guilty of being what my husband calls, "willy-nilly" all too often. It's so easy to blame others for having to multi-task - "my job demands it" or " I have so much on my plate" - but if we are really honest with ourselves, we may realize that switching from one task to the other is something we do at home when no one is looking, too. If that becomes our normal, we're going to do that in whatever situation we find ourselves in. And it's going to become more pronounced when we are under stress. For me, it's a way to avoid decision making - if I do just a little, just the part I know how to do, and then flip to something else and yet something else, I can avoid doing the hard parts. The hard parts might not be as hard if I didn't have to reacquaint myself to the project every time I switch back to it after focusing elsewhere.
A to-do list or a schedule with only the most important tasks in a natural order of your energy level goes a long way in helping you stay on task. A timer can also help you, especially if it's something you don't particularly love doing. Setting clear expectations about your time with those who you feel accountable to may be the most important aspect in being productive. If you tell your boss or your spouse or your kids that you will do multiple things for them in an unrealistic time frame, you are going to naturally try to switch back and forth to try to get things completed. Pad the time you think you need, so you can over-deliver and gain momentum. Finally, decide what NOT to focus on. Cal Newport says in his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focuses Success in a Distracted World, “What we choose to focus on and what we choose to ignore—plays in defining the quality of our life.”
This coming week, I'm going to try to improve my productivity by trying single-tasking. I know I can't spend two whole days on one project again, but I can spend blocks of time this week with head-down focus. I'm excited to see the results!
Crenshaw, Dave. The Myth of Multitasking: How Doing It All Gets Nothing Done. Jossey-Bass, 2008.
Rader, Marcey. “Multitasking, Switchtasking, Background Tasking or Hypertasking.” Marcey Rader Coaching, LLC, 13 Dec. 2017, www.marceyrader.com/multitasking-switchtasking-background-tasking-hypertasking/.
Newport, Cal. Deep Work. Piatkus, 2016.
A woman with many roles in life who knows the necessity of keeping things in order!