Lots of us think we’re good at multi-tasking: juggling half a dozen things at once, like cooking supper while helping the kids with their homework; perhaps making calls or texting at the same time? It’s what we do and women are very good at it. We often have to be! But recent research paints a different picture. Multi-tasking actually makes us LESS productive because we end up not doing any task really well, and frequently don’t complete tasks because we get distracted.
The truth is multi-tasking makes us less efficient, not more!
So what’s the attraction of multi-tasking anyway?
If you’re anything like me BC (before coaching) then you’ll be reading this on your computer/smartphone/tablet with five other browser tabs open, a document or two on the go, and little alerts going off all over the place: new email, new text, someone posted something on Facebook, another software update needs action, etc, etc. And perhaps you’re sitting with the TV or radio on too (because you want to watch/listen to that really interesting/entertaining programme you like). If this rings any bells then you probably feel this is the only way you can get everything done – there just aren’t enough hours in the day are there? And all of these things are really important, aren’t they?
Maybe you even thrive on that buzz of adrenaline from the stress and anxiety that you feel while all this is going on – it’s quite addictive, isn’t it? It can help us feel validated and valued if we HAVE to reply to emails just before we go to bed at night, or to check our inbox first thing in the morning in case there’s something really URGENT. I know that on a good day I’d think I was flying through my To Do list – feeling wired, my mind leaping about all over the place from task to task, scribbling down new ideas and things to do, clipping and bookmarking web pages to look at later, downloading e-books and guides to read when I had more time (because I didn’t want to get distracted right now, did I?). Sound familiar?
And on a bad day?
Well, on a bad day it just felt like chasing my tail. Nothing on the To Do list got done (or I ended up with jobs half done) and, if anything, the list was longer than when I started. The adrenaline buzz left me feeling dissipated and exhausted and – more than that – really disappointed with myself. Angry and frustrated that another precious day was coming to an end and I hadn’t done half the things I‘d planned. I’d feel resentful because I hadn’t had any fun either; while I’d been rampaging around the internet being ‘too busy’ I’d missed out on the chance to meet up with a friend or take some down time.
So what’s the first thing we can do to master the multi-tasking monster?
It’s hard to stay focused on one task when we feel we have too much to do, or if the task at hand is not that enjoyable.
First step then?
- Be mindful: become aware of your attention being pulled away from the task you’re doing. Just notice it. Then, when you notice it, be aware of what entices you away – what’s the lure of checking your email every five minutes? Or answering the phone when you know you don’t have time to talk to anyone right now (and note that most of us can see who’s calling us on our mobile or even our home phone)? You can read more about the neuroscience behind this here.
My other top tips to overcome the habit:
- Group your tasks. Sometimes called ‘batching’. Try and make all your phone calls in one go. Then tackle the emails. By grouping similar activities you can stay focused and take control of your day – much better than letting other people dictate! And do we really need to keep checking our emails or social media feeds all day? Better to turn off those notifications.
- Work in short bursts. If you concentrate on one thing for 20 minutes or so it’s amazing how productive you can be. That’s why the Pomodoro Technique is so popular. Adapt it to suit yourself – I use a timer on my phone set to 25 minutes and work for that long, take 5 minutes off (have a cuppa, check emails or whatever), work another 25 minutes, take 5 and so on until I’ve earned myself a full half hour off. I try to use at least one of these longer breaks to take a walk with the dogs or something else not work-related.
- Get some help. There are lots of really good, free applications available that can support you. I use an app called SelfControl (Mac only) that lets you create a list of websites to block, and helps stop you from getting into internet hell for a set period of time. You tell it what sites to block and for how long, then there is NOTHING you can do to over-ride it until the time is up!
And what about ditching the To Do list altogether?
Another tool I’ve discovered really helps is NOT to have a To Do list at all. “What?” I hear you cry! No, honestly. It’s all due to the Zeigarnik Effect (discovered and studied by a woman, wouldn’t you know?). Those niggly thoughts about the uncompleted tasks on The List stop you from being present with whatever you’re doing RIGHT NOW. Like multi-tasking itself, having The List is actually counter-productive. And it makes you feel stressed!
I use reminders – either set on my phone or on my computer calendar – and assign specific dates and times to each thing. That way I don’t have to keep a list at all because each item pops up just when I need to do it – and if I’m in the middle of something else I can just put the reminder to sleep so that it pops up again a little later on (like when I’m coming to the end of a 25 minute work slot).
But really Jane, I don’t think I can survive without The List …. !
If you can’t bear to part with The List, then there’s a great tip from writer Charlie Haynes at Urban Writers’ Retreat: put away your list for the time that you’re writing (or doing your current task). She even suggests putting it in the fridge! If you keep a notebook or piece of paper to hand you can just jot down anything that pops into your head that isn’t related to the activity you’re engaged in (like ‘remember to order flowers for Mum’ – just write it down and DON’T get on the phone to the florist or go onto a website to book a bouquet).
It DOES work. I’m not saying you won’t ever catch me battling the multi-tasking monster, but I know how to beat it into submission now when it creeps up on me.
And get some coaching! It really does help to have someone rooting for you and supporting you to break this chain of trying to do too much.