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The Ability to Multitask Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

The Ability to Multitask Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

    There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.” ~ Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, April 1747

    Everybody I know has too much to do and too little time to get it done. Overstuffed schedules and overlong to-do lists mean many people live those “lives of quiet desperation” where at any given time we’re trying to do several things at once. The infamous ability to multitask.

    Sure, I can cook dinner and help the kids with their homework.

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    I can read a magazine and eat dinner while watching the TV shows I’ve recorded on my DVR.

    I can reply to text messages while I drive? (Wait, no I can’t. That’s illegal.) But I can do it at the dinner table.

    I can monitor emails during that business meeting.

    When tasks-to-be-done exceed time-in-the-day, it seems reasonable and efficient to double up on activities. It’s the only way to get it all done, right?

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    Right?

    Maybe not.

    Human multitasking, meaning the ability to do more than one task simultaneously, is a myth. Don’t take my word for it. Check out this NPR story and this piece in The New Atlantis. Numerous scientific studies have shown that when we think we’re multitasking, what our brain is actually doing is rapidly switching its focus back and forth among the various tasks. That hyperspeed switching has been found to actually impair productivity and even to temporarily (we hope) lower the multitasker’s IQ.

    But just as important as these is how the ability to multitask impairs the quality of life. Habitual multitasking eventually leads to an inability to relax, to turn off, or to focus on anything for very long. It’s virtually impossible to be at peace if your mind is perpetually jumping among multiple attention-takers. Over time you realize you’re always tense, you don’t sleep well, and–maybe worst of all–the people in your life feel that you’re disconnected and even uncaring.

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    While sometimes it’s appropriate, and even necessary, to handle more than one task at a time, it is crucially important to your mental health to create some space in your life when you’re not being pulled in multiple directions. Space for quiet, for peace.

    How? A few things come to mind:

    • For some portion of every day, disconnect from the internet. Completely. Don’t check your email, or Facebook, or Twitter. Don’t play online games. Watch an entire movie without once checking your smart phone. Start with an hour a day and build up your tolerance level until you can stay offline for a full day.
    • Turn off your phone at night or leave it in a different room. I struggle with this one. I have a busy legal practice, with clients who expect to be able to reach me pretty much 24/7. I used to keep my BlackBerry on my nightstand while I slept, and would awaken in the night to check and respond to emails. I’ve abandoned that practice, and now leave my iPhone down the hall, in my home office, at night.
    • Take the weekends off. Although it seems that in my profession we’re never really off-duty, we can safely disconnect from work at appropriate times. On the weekends, I leave my iPhone in my home office while I do other things, checking a few times a day for urgent messages. I no longer keep it within reach at all times. And I haven’t yet lost a single client because of it.
    • Take regular breaks. Read this article for great ideas on how and when.
    • Don’t take your phone to dinner. Put your phone in another room at dinner time, and just spend those few minutes talking with the people at the table.
    • Drive in silence. I have a long daily commute, and I like to use that time to listen to audiobooks or podcasts. But sometimes, I turn everything off and drive in silence, with nothing to listen to but my own thoughts.
    • Spend some time every day, or at least every week, outdoors, with no electronic devices. Sometimes, run without an iPod. Walk without your smart phone. Just you and the birds.
    • Read a book with no music and no TV in the background.
    • Don’t check emails during business meetings. Leave your smart phone or iPad in your office. Unless people’s actual, physical lives depend on reaching you at a moment’s notice (probably only true if you are a doctor or the President of the United States), the world won’t come to an end if you are out of the loop for an hour. So pay attention to what’s being said in the meeting. Take notes on paper if you need to. This is one that I need to work on this week.

    The idea is to be a little more in the moment, and a little less distracted. You will find that as you make it a priority to focus more and “multitask” less, several benefits will accrue.

    First, things that really don’t matter will fall off your to-do list.

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    Second, you’ll actually accomplish more (and more high-quality) work on the tasks that have your undivided attention.

    Third, the people you interact with will begin to feel more valued and more “heard.”

    Fourth, you will begin to feel less stressed and more at peace with yourself.

    What do you think? Could your life be improved by focusing on one task at a time? Do you have any tips that you’d add to the list above? I’d love to see your thoughts in the comments below.

    (Photo credit: Working from Home via Shutterstock)

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    Last Updated on August 16, 2018

    16 Productivity Secrets of Highly Successful People Revealed

    16 Productivity Secrets of Highly Successful People Revealed

    The same old motivational secrets don’t really motivate you after you’ve read them for the tenth time, do they?

    How about a unique spin on things?

    These 16 productivity secrets of successful people will make you reevaluate your approach to your home, work, and creative lives. Learn from these highly successful people, turn these little things they do into your daily habits and you’ll get closer to success.

    1. Empty your mind.

    It sounds counterproductive, doesn’t it?

    Emptying your mind when you have so much to remember seems like you’re just begging to forget something. Instead, this gives you a clean slate so you’re not still thinking about last week’s tasks.

    Clear your mind and then start thinking only about what you need to do immediately, and then today. Tasks that need to be accomplished later in the week can wait.

    Here’s a guide to help you empty your mind and think sharper:

    How to Declutter Your Mind to Sharpen Your Brain and Fall Asleep Faster

    2. Keep certain days clear.

    Some companies are scheduling “No Meeting Wednesdays,” which means, funnily enough, that no one can hold a meeting on a Wednesday. This gives workers a full day to work on their own tasks, without getting sidetracked by other duties or pointless meetings.

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    This can work in your personal life too, for example if you need to restrict Facebook access or limit phone calls.

    3. Prioritize your work.

    Don’t think every task is created equal! Some tasks aren’t as important as others, or might take less time.

    Try to sort your tasks every day and see what can be done quickly and efficiently. Get these out of the way so you have more free time and brain power to focus on what is more important.

    Lifehack’s CEO has a unique way to prioritize works, take a look at it here:

    How to Prioritize Right in 10 Minutes and Work 10X Faster

    4. Chop up your time.

    Many successful business leaders chop their time up into fifteen-minute intervals. This means they work on tasks for a quarter of an hour at a time, or schedule meetings for only fifteen minutes. It makes each hour seem four times as long, which leads to more productivity!

    5. Have a thinking position.

    Truman Capote claimed he couldn’t think unless he was laying down. Proust did this as well, while Stravinsky would stand on his head!

    What works for others may not work for you. Try to find a spot and position that is perfect for you to brainstorm or come up with ideas.

    6. Pick three to five things you must do that day.

    To Do lists can get overwhelming very quickly. Instead of making a never-ending list of everything you can think of that needs to be done, make daily lists that include just three to five things.

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    Make sure they’re things that need to be done that day, so you don’t keep putting them off.

    7. Don’t try to do too much.

    OK, so I just told you to work every day, and now I’m telling you to not do too much? It might sound like conflicting advice, but not doing too much means not biting off more than you can chew. Don’t say yes to every work project or social engagement and find yourself in way over your head.

    8. Have a daily action plan.

    Don’t limit yourself to a to-do list! Take ten minutes every morning to map out a daily action plan. It’s a place to not only write what needs to be done that day, but also to prioritize what will bring the biggest reward, what will take the longest, and what goals will be accomplished.

    Leave room for a “brain dump,” where you can scribble down anything else that’s on your mind.

    9. Do your most dreaded project first.

    Getting your most dreaded task over with first means you’ll have the rest of the day free for anything and everything else. This also means that you won’t be constantly putting off the worst of your projects, making it even harder to start on it later.

    10. Follow the “Two-Minute Rule.”

    The “Two-Minute Rule” was made famous by David Allen. It’s simple – if a new task comes in and it can be done in two minutes or less, do it right then. Putting it off just adds to your to-do list and will make the task seem more monumental later.

    11. Have a place devoted to work.

    If you work in an office, it’s no problem to say that your cubicle desk is where you work every day.

    But if you work from home, make sure you have a certain area specifically for work. You don’t want files spread out all over the dinner table, and you don’t want to feel like you’re not working just because you’re relaxing on the couch.

    Agatha Christie never wrote at her desk, she wrote wherever she could sit down. Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up. Thomas Wolfe, at 6’6″ tall, used the top of his refrigerator as a desk. Richard Wright wrote on a park bench, rain or shine.

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    Have a space where, when you go there, you know you’re going to work. Maybe it’s a cafe downstairs, the library, or a meeting room. Whenever and wherever works for you, do your works there.

    12. Find your golden hour.

    You don’t have to stick to a “typical” 9–5 schedule!

    Novelist Anne Rice slept during the day and wrote at night to avoid distractions. Writer Jerzy Kosinski slept eight hours a day, but never all at once. He’d wake in the morning, work, sleep four hours in the afternoon, then work more that evening.

    Your golden hour is the time when you’re at your peak. You’re alert, ready to be productive, and intent on crossing things off your to-do list.

    Once you find your best time, protect it with all your might. Make sure you’re always free to do your best uninterrupted work at this time.

    13. Pretend you’re on an airplane.

    It might not be possible to lock everyone out of your office to get some peace and quiet, but you can eliminate some distractions.

    By pretending you’re on an airplane, you can act like your internet access is limited, you’re not able to get something from your bookcase, and you can’t make countless phone calls.

    Eliminating these distractions will help you focus on your most important tasks and get them done without interruption.

    14. Never stop.

    Writers Anthony Trollope and Henry James started writing their next books as soon as they finished their current work in progress.

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    Stephen King writes every day of the year, and holds himself accountable for 2,000 words a day! Mark Twain wrote every day, and then read his day’s work aloud to his family to get their feedback.

    There’s something to be said about working nonstop, and putting out continuous work instead of taking a break. It’s just a momentum that will push you go further./

    15. Be in tune with your body.

    Your mind and body will get tired of a task after ninety minutes to two hours focused on it. Keep this in mind as you assign projects to yourself throughout the day, and take breaks to ensure that you won’t get burned out.

    16. Try different methods.

    Vladimir Nabokov wrote the first drafts of his novels on index cards. This made it easy to rearrange sentences, paragraphs, and chapters by shuffling the cards around.

    It does sound easier, and more fun, than copying and pasting in Word! Once Nabokov liked the arrangement, his wife typed them into a single manuscript.

    Same for you, don’t give up and think that it’s impossible for you to be productive when one method fails. Try different methods until you find what works perfectly for you.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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