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The Right Way To Be A Multitasker

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The Right Way To Be A Multitasker

Some people have a very precise definition of who they are, and if it works for them, that’s great. I can see how comforting it can be to look at yourself in the mirror and say: “I am exactly the person I think I am.”

The trouble for me is: I don’t find it comforting. I find it stifling. Don’t get me wrong, I have expectations of myself, others and the world.
But I’ve never felt like I was a fixed concept. I change, and by that I don’t mean I change with time, I mean I change all the time. I get to choose who I want to be at every second, and that makes me feel free.

The thing is, most productivity theories are meant for single-minded people. They tell us we should focus on one project, take it to the limit, then move on to the next one, hopefully in a perfect continuity. The productivity ideal seems to be: know exactly what’s coming next, and then become exactly that.

But I don’t think that reflects the way most people function. We have jobs. We have personal lives. We have hobbies, interests, mood swings, little illnesses, moments of motivation, moments of joy. All of those things constantly change. They shift, interact and often conflict, requiring us to make hard choices, and if there’s a choice we don’t know how to make, we feel like we failed. But we didn’t fail. We were simply the usual victims of a case of “Life happens”. Life does happen, all the time. My point is, we should embrace it.

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1. Let the pressure off

The first and biggest culprit for our unhappiness is the feeling that we should be doing “more.” Am I getting enough sleep? Am I spending enough time with my family? What if my 50 hours of weekly work are insufficient? We don’t even wait for our loved ones to complain, or for our boss to give us feedback. We are constantly pitting ourselves against the clock, under the impression that more hours is always better.

Well, that’s simply not true.

A large body of work supports the claim that our productive time is capped. 40 to 50 hours per week is the spot after which we cannot focus anymore. Much like an athlete training for a marathon, our brain needs time to recover, and grudging that is the most direct path to a burnout (a well-known Finnish study postulates that people who work 11 hours per day are at a 2.5 times higher risk of suffering from depression than people who work for 7-8 hours.)

Our friends and family too need quality time rather than a lot of time (ignore this if you’ve just put a toddler into this world, and revisit once you leave them in Kindergarten.) Does your better half prefer to have your undivided attention for 1 hour, or would they rather have you slumped on the couch by their side with your laptop for the whole evening? There you go.

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We really need to leave the “longer is better” mindset behind. Instead, we should commit to every activity we undertake. Work less but be more focused. Run less but do interval training. We cannot add more hours to our days, but we can make the most of each hour. That’s the goal.

2. Don’t give up on things that matter

Once you realize you don’t need to do more, it’s time to get another complex out of the way. You are allowed to have many different things matter to you. You don’t need to pigeonhole yourself as a family person, a workaholic, a fitness addict or a geek.

In my case, I have a partner, a family and a job, I am trying to get into running, and I love video games, books, movies, theater, singing, taking pictures. Every one of these things matters to me. Some people might say: why don’t you pick a couple activities, that should be enough to make you happy, right?

Wrong. The vast amount of things I enjoy is part of who I am, and each moment I spend enjoying them increases me. Why would I specialize?

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First of all, there are diminishing returns to everything: our productivity, our enjoyment of activities, and indeed our enjoyment of others. We all have stories of people going away on holidays with best friends, and wanting to strangle them before the end…

Second and most importantly, having diverse interests has been proven time and time again to make us smarter, quicker, more apt to create new, impactful ideas and things. In The Art of Scientific Invention, W.I.B. Beveridge explained, in 1957 already, that our brains need an “eclectism of influence” to be at their best. In other words, diversifying our activities is not only alright, it’s a necessity.

So instead of grudgingly giving up on things you enjoy for the sake of conforming to a definition, leave the door open. If anything, discover new things to enjoy from time to time! We all age, but we don’t have to grow old.

3. Track your time to get rid of distractions

The big question, of course, is: how to fit all that in a week? There’s only so much time you can claw back. If you work 40 hours instead of 42, that’s still only 2 hours. So what gives?

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I really committed to tracking my time 2 years ago, when we created with two friends our own automated time-tracking app, Smarter Time. And I’ve learned something very important.

I was spending ages on things that did not matter to me, and could only be qualified as wasting time. I used to go back and forth between my work and silly articles on social media constantly. 10 minutes working, 4 minutes on Facebook. 10 minutes on emails, 3 minutes on Twitter. That’s about 25% of my working hours wasted. As a result, I felt I had to work 25% more. That’s not 2 hours, people. That’s the difference between a 50 and a 62 hour week. It’s huge.

But the thing is, because each distraction was very short in duration, I would never have guessed they were adding up to so much. That’s where having an objective way of tracking my time came into play. I essentially replaced 12 hours of useless time-wasters with a diversification of activities that actually make me grow.

Another thing it helps with is to balance your interests out. Let’s say I have a couple hours free. I’d like to play a bit of guitar, but then, I’d also like to play a video game. I can have a look at my analytics and decide: “Oh, I’ve played 10 hours of guitar this month, by my standards that’s enough. Let’s exterminate some alien species online!”

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Multitasking, like any complex system, is a matter of organisation. Sure, it’s easier to have one job, one hobby and one friend; you always know what you’re going to do next. But if that doesn’t work for you, then you shouldn’t feel bad for wanting to broaden your horizons. We only have one life, but we each have an infinity of ways of living it – so why not try several ways at a time? There’s no reason not to be all the persons you want to be.

Featured photo credit: Steven Depolo via flickr.com

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