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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
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    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.

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    (Photo credit: Working from Home via Shutterstock)

    More by this author

    Laura McClellan

    Passionate about encouraging women in their roles as wives, mothers, friends, and workers.

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    Last Updated on July 21, 2021

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to Make a Reminder Works for You

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    More on Building Habits

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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