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Multi-tasking Isn’t Always a Bad Idea

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Multi-tasking Isn’t Always a Bad Idea

    Multi-tasking; it seems that people are going to have big debates about this topic until the end of time.

    Recently, a book came out that claimed to “bust” the multi-tasking myth – as many authors have done over the decades. It’s nothing new. And the blog posts that spring up saying nothing but, “this is nothing new,” are nothing new either.

    Let’s get a little perspective here. I think in most situations where some pocket of humanity is forming an opinion, we have a truth that is somewhere in the middle, and then two extreme, polarized opinions based on opposite sides of that less extreme reality. People cling to polarized opinions even when the truth has been proven right in front of their eyes.

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    Multi-tasking (or switch-tasking as the new buzz word goes) is usually a bad idea. No doubt about that, but the keyword is usually.

    Because on the contrary, multi-tasking can be a useful way to make the most of time that would have otherwise been used inefficiently. It’s about making the most out of time, when it’s a good idea to do so. But how do you determine when it’s a good idea to multi-task?

    Only Two Activities at Once

    If you’re going to multi-task, then only attempt to tackle two activities at once. If 95% of the time you can only focus on one task effectively, that remaining 5% of the time, you can only handle two tasks at once without reducing the effectiveness of each task to a point where there’s little point in doing anything at all.

    Imagine trying to cook, talk on the phone, and read a book. You could sure manage to cook and talk on the phone at the same time, but all three at once isn’t going to work. Our ability to perform tasks adequately hits its maximum at two, and that’s an upper maximum at that.

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    Of course, we can’t just multi-task any two activities, or I’d be writing two articles right now.

    Levels of Concentration

    There are two main types of task: those that require concentration, and those that can be done on autopilot.

    As a rule, you can’t truly multi-task unless one of the two tasks at hand is one you do on autopilot, such as washing the dishes.

    There are varying degrees of concentration requirement, too – listening to an audiobook while doing the dishes is easy because we have one task that’s easily done on autopilot with one task that requires concentration, but only concentration on incoming information. There’s no generation of outgoing information, so it’s easy and time efficient to multi-task.

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    When there’s a task that requires creating output, such as dictating a diary or brainstorming ideas into a tape recorder while doing the dishes, it needs to be fairly stream-of-consciousness or free-flowing. To work on something structured, high-level, or strategic requires total concentration.

    The Best Reason to Say No to Multi-tasking

    The best reason to say no to multi-tasking is not because it doesn’t work or it doesn’t exist. The true statement there is that it usually doesn’t exist.

    The best reason to say no to multi-tasking is because it is a crutch. It is a gateway to low-resistance activities that allow us to procrastinate when we should be working on higher-yield activities that require more intensive thought.

    It’s much easier to check email while reading RSS feeds than it is to write an article or plan a marketing campaign, so we resort to those easier activities that don’t require us to push past the resistance.

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    Multi-tasking does a great job of covering up the fact that we’re doing nothing, and we even fool ourselves with it. But unless you know that at the end of the day your current activities are going to have advanced your project or goals, you’re wasting your time out of fear of tackling those goals.

    If this is you, avoid multi-tasking. Think of it as a scourge; it’s the closest thing to a gateway drug to procrastination to you.

    One Question to Rule Them All

    At the end of the day, it would be stupid to suggest you need to measure the concentration level of a task and add one tablespoon of autopilot activities to create a multi-tasking mix. It needs to be an easy question you ask yourself, to which I hope the answer is usually in the negative or you’re spending all your time on low-yield activities as we just discussed.

    Understanding how multi-tasking works and more importantly, how it doesn’t work, is essential to answering this question honestly for yourself, though. But it’s a simple question:

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    Can I give both activities the attention they deserve and perform at an adequate level?

    More by this author

    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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    Last Updated on October 21, 2021

    How to Create Your Own Ritual to Conquer Time Wasters and Laziness

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    How to Create Your Own Ritual to Conquer Time Wasters and Laziness

    Life is wasted in the in-between times. The time between when your alarm first rings and when you finally decide to get out of bed. The time between when you sit at your desk and when productive work begins. The time between making a decision and doing something about it.

    Slowly, your day is whittled away from all the unused in-between moments. Eventually, time wasters, laziness, and procrastination get the better of you.

    The solution to reclaim these lost middle moments is by creating rituals. Every culture on earth uses rituals to transfer information and encode behaviors that are deemed important. Personal rituals can help you build a better pattern for handling everything from how you wake up to how you work.

    Unfortunately, when most people see rituals, they see pointless superstitions. Indeed, many rituals are based on a primitive understanding of the world. But by building personal rituals, you get to encode the behaviors you feel are important and cut out the wasted middle moments.

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    Program Your Own Algorithms

    Another way of viewing rituals is by seeing them as computer algorithms. An algorithm is a set of instructions that is repeated to get a result.

    Some algorithms are highly efficient, sorting or searching millions of pieces of data in a few seconds. Other algorithms are bulky and awkward, taking hours to do the same task.

    By forming rituals, you are building algorithms for your behavior. Take the delayed and painful pattern of waking up, debating whether to sleep in for another two minutes, hitting the snooze button, repeat until almost late for work. This could be reprogrammed to get out of bed immediately, without debating your decision.

    How to Form a Ritual

    I’ve set up personal rituals for myself for handling e-mail, waking up each morning, writing articles, and reading books. Far from making me inflexible, these rituals give me a useful default pattern that works best 99% of the time. Whenever my current ritual won’t work, I’m always free to stop using it.

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    Forming a ritual isn’t too difficult, and the same principles for changing habits apply:

    1. Write out your sequence of behavior. I suggest starting with a simple ritual of only 3-4 steps maximum. Wait until you’ve established a ritual before you try to add new steps.
    2. Commit to following your ritual for thirty days. This step will take the idea and condition it into your nervous system as a habit.
    3. Define a clear trigger. When does your ritual start? A ritual to wake up is easy—the sound of your alarm clock will work. As for what triggers you to go to the gym, read a book or answer e-mail—you’ll have to decide.
    4. Tweak the Pattern. Your algorithm probably won’t be perfectly efficient the first time. Making a few tweaks after the first 30-day trial can make your ritual more useful.

    Ways to Use a Ritual

    Based on the above ideas, here are some ways you could implement your own rituals:

    1. Waking Up

    Set up a morning ritual for when you wake up and the next few things you do immediately afterward. To combat the grogginess after immediately waking up, my solution is to do a few pushups right after getting out of bed. After that, I sneak in ninety minutes of reading before getting ready for morning classes.

    2. Web Usage

    How often do you answer e-mail, look at Google Reader, or check Facebook each day? I found by taking all my daily internet needs and compressing them into one, highly-efficient ritual, I was able to cut off 75% of my web time without losing any communication.

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    3. Reading

    How much time do you get to read books? If your library isn’t as large as you’d like, you might want to consider the rituals you use for reading. Programming a few steps to trigger yourself to read instead of watching television or during a break in your day can chew through dozens of books each year.

    4. Friendliness

    Rituals can also help with communication. Set up a ritual of starting a conversation when you have opportunities to meet people.

    5. Working

    One of the hardest barriers when overcoming procrastination is building up a concentrated flow. Building those steps into a ritual can allow you to quickly start working or continue working after an interruption.

    6. Going to the gym

    If exercising is a struggle, encoding a ritual can remove a lot of the difficulty. Set up a quick ritual for going to exercise right after work or when you wake up.

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    7. Exercise

    Even within your workouts, you can have rituals. Spacing the time between runs or reps with a certain number of breaths can remove the guesswork. Forming a ritual of doing certain exercises in a particular order can save time.

    8. Sleeping

    Form a calming ritual in the last 30-60 minutes of your day before you go to bed. This will help slow yourself down and make falling asleep much easier. Especially if you plan to get up full of energy in the morning, it will help if you remove insomnia.

    8. Weekly Reviews

    The weekly review is a big part of the GTD system. By making a simple ritual checklist for my weekly review, I can get the most out of this exercise in less time. Originally, I did holistic reviews where I wrote my thoughts on the week and progress as a whole. Now, I narrow my focus toward specific plans, ideas, and measurements.

    Final Thoughts

    We all want to be productive. But time wasters, procrastination, and laziness sometimes get the better of us. If you’re facing such difficulties, don’t be afraid to make use of these rituals to help you conquer them.

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    Featured photo credit: RODOLFO BARRETO via unsplash.com

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