This topic means a lot to me because I've seen (and felt) what it can do. Through my work as a life coach and strategist, I talk with a lot of working mothers who are overwhelmed and desperately seeking work-life balance. When I tell them about the research showing the counter-productiveness of multitasking, their response is overwhelmingly the same as mine was: relief followed by panic.
First, I hear things like, "Oh, thank God! I hate multitasking!" or "I thought I just wasn't good at it." or "I was wondering why I felt so scattered all the time!"
And then, when they start to think about eliminating multitasking from their lives, the panic sets in. "But how the #!&$ am I supposed to get anything done?" "I'm barely holding on here...I don't have the energy to totally revamp my life." "I don't have a choice! What else can I do?"
Good question. What can we do to make multitasking work for us, rather than the other way around? Although some may disagree, I don't believe that elimination should be the goal. I think multitasking will always be a part of our lives, simply because of the complexity of the world around us. There are times when it is essential to modern life and trying to eliminate an essential is a setup for failure or, worse yet, inaction.
I take more of a harm reduction approach. I think the goal should be managing multitasking, rather than eliminating it. The path to do this starts with raising awareness about the issue, then brings in building concentration skills and learning to multitask smarter.
I know...this one isn't sexy. It doesn't give any quick results or concrete take-aways. But I'm starting here because awareness is the foundation that makes all the rest possible. So let's dig in and get going.
Because of the false sense of productivity that multitasking creates, it's essential to raise awareness about the fallacy of it in order to flip the switch on how it's perceived in our minds and in our world. You'll remember from last week's post that, even though single-taskers are, in reality, proven to be more effective across the board than multitaskers, they're perceived to be less effective by almost everyone around them, including themselves.
To resist the enticement of multitasking, we need to retrain our brains to have an ingrained response of recognizing the advantage of single-tasking. In order for broad and lasting change to take hold here, this retraining needs to happen on several levels: our own minds; our immediate groups (families, organizations, work groups, social circles, etc.); our broader communities and, ultimately; our global culture.
The more we practice recognizing our own biases toward multitasking and shifting our mindsets to value focused concentration, the less we'll unconsciously associate the hustle bustle with higher productivity. And the more that happens, on a broad scale, the less pressure and expectation there will be to work in the multitasking way (ie. immediate responsiveness, 24-7 work schedules, etc.). And the more that happens, the freer we'll be to approach our tasks with the singular focus that leads not only to greater effectiveness, but also more enjoyment and better well-being in general.
Building "Focus Muscles"
Once we're able to flip the switch on our internal biases, we need to develop the skills to change our actions. Just like so many other habit changes, the concept of building a new muscle holds true here: The more you do it, the easier it becomes. Eventually, you'll have a healthy new default to replace your counterproductive old one.
Here are some tips to help you build your single-tasking muscles while you reset your default:
1. Chunk your time. Whenever your circumstances allow, commit to focusing on a single task for a designated amount of time. Srikumar Rao, author of Happiness at Work, recommends starting with 20 minute increments and gradually working up to 2-hour blocks. I've found that it helps to set a timer so I can get totally immersed in the task without worrying that time will get away from me and I'll forget to pick up the kids from day care or some other potential catastrophe.
2. Keep a task list. If unrelated (but important) things keep popping into your mind and you're worried about forgetting them, keep a running document with your ideas and to-do's always open at your workspace. It can be a physical notepad, an app on your mobile device, a document on your computer...whatever. The key is to make it as fast and easy as possible to access so you can quickly dump the item on your list and shift your focus back to the task at hand.
3. Set parameters around accessibility. Unless your circumstances make it necessary for you to be immediately reachable and responsive, set two or three times per day when you'll check and respond to email, voicemail, texts, etc. It helps to turn off your ringer and push notifications so you're not tempted to break concentration to see what's going on. If there's the potential for an emergency to come up, create an emergency contact protocol for your family, child's school, or other high urgency situations (ie. calling your company's front desk rather than your direct line).
4. Limit unnecessary screens. Unless it's necessary and relevant to the task at hand, keep mobile devices, computer screens, TVs, etc. off and out of sight whenever possible. This is especially useful when you're interacting with other humans (on a call with a client, at the dinner table, on date nights, catching up with friends, etc.) or taking in information that you'll need to remember (trainings, meetings, webinars, reading, etc.).
5. Push through the discomfort. When holding a singular focus starts to feel lazy, unproductive, slow, indulgent, or just plain uncomfortable - and it will, if you're not used to it - push through the temptation to multitask by reminding yourself that your mind is playing tricks on you. (Of course, if there's a legitimate need to shift tasks, by all means do so.) It helps to have a mantra you can recite in your head (ie. "The stronger the focus, the better the results.") or an inspiring visual you can post in your workspace to help reel you back in.
In a perfect world, we'd approach every task with singular focus, complete it deeply and cleanly, and take great pleasure from getting it done before moving onto the next task. But, in the reality of looming deadlines, active children, and a symphony of buzzes and beeps coming from all over the place, that's just not gonna happen. There are all sorts of times in our lives when there's no getting around it. For those times, here are some tips to multitask smarter:
1. Figure out if it's multitaskable. There are definitely some tasks that are less impacted by task switching than others. Here are some examples:
- Usually Multitaskable: routine tasks you can do on auto-pilot; tasks requiring little mental concentration; simple, repetitive physical activity; tasks you don't need to remember or experience in great detail
- Usually Not Multitaskable: tasks or activities involving interpersonal connection or discussion; tasks requiring you to retain knowledge or information; complex or strenuous physical activity; activities that bring you great joy or that you want to fully experience or savor
2. Match compatible tasks. The more similar two tasks are, the less your brain has to process while task switching. For example, putting away dishes while making dinner is a better combo than answering work emails while making dinner.
3. Use background distracters. These are mildly pleasurable activities that are meant to take your mind off of unpleasant but necessary ones. Some examples are watching TV while folding laundry, listening to music while filing papers, or reading a magazine on the treadmill. The key to making this work best is to make sure both items are multitaskable (see #1 on this list).
4. Use it to get unstuck. Have you ever noticed that some of your best ideas come when you're in the shower? That's because multitasking can actually help shake things up when the innovative ideas, just-right solutions, or creative breakthroughs are just not flowing. In these situations, broadening your focus for a bit with a mindless activity (walking, taking a shower, filing papers, etc.) can actually help recalibrate your thinking and clear the way for new ideas.
5. Make it an intentional decision. Rather than diving into multitasking as a default, take a moment to weigh the pros and cons in order to make a conscious decision. Is it absolutely necessary? Does urgency outweigh the need for quality here? Is what will be gained by multitasking worth what will be sacrificed? Will you feel cheated out of this experience if you only partially participate in it? Will the people around you resent your lack of attention if you're only half-engaged? And, if so, is that worth the benefits to be gained by multitasking?
There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. The answers will vary from situation to situation and from person to person. There will be times when our circumstances dictate that we have to just suck it up and do it all at once. And that's OK. That's ultimately a choice each of us will need to make for ourselves. And, to be honest, I even multitasked a time or two while writing this post.
I just hope that by creating more awareness, intentionality, and strategy about it, multitasking will eventually be seen as an occasional necessity, rather than a golden standard of success.
What do you think? In the comments below, let us know a bit about how multitasking shows up in your life and how you keep your concentration when it comes knocking on your door.
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