“When you bow, you should just bow; when you sit, you should just sit; when you eat, you should just eat.”
– Shunryu Suzuki
We are an overwhelmed, over-scheduled, and distracted society. Most of us try to do more than one thing at a time, thinking that we’re accomplishing twice as much in the same amount of time as just doing a single thing. Most of the time, we’re deluding ourselves. Instead of doing one thing well and then moving on to the next, we do two things poorly and take more time doing it. How many of us have tried to hold phone conversations while checking out stuff on our computer or TV screens? Or tried to write something – an article or report – while trying to keep track of incoming emails or texts? For mundane tasks that require little brain work, like folding laundry, the distraction of TV may help make the task less tedious. Adding music to our workout can help us go faster, longer, stronger, and take our mind off the pain! But most of the time, doing two things at once just makes everything take more time, causes us to make mistakes, and stresses us out.
The key to productivity is focus. When we try to work on a project while intermittently checking email, answering the phone, or surfing the ‘net, we never really get into full concentration mode. Contrary to popular opinion, your brain really can’t fully focus on two things at the same time. What really happens is that your brain needs to take time to switch back and forth between each task. It may only be just a few seconds each time, but it adds up over time. It takes longer to accomplish both tasks than if you just focused on one single task until it was completed, then moved on to the next. We never really get “in the zone.”
Don’t believe it? Try setting a timer to see how long it takes to do a task that requires concentration, while at the same time, reading emails intermittently. Then time yourself doing the two tasks separately without bouncing back and forth between the two and add it up. You will find that your total time spent is less when you focus on each thing separately. You will avoid losing those few seconds each time when your brain must switch its focus back and forth between the two. And, most likely, you will make far fewer mistakes and produce work of higher quality when you allow yourself to fully concentrate on one, single task.
5 Tips to Minimize Multi-Tasking
- Schedule specific blocks of time in your day to read and answer emails. Rather than giving in to the tendency to check your inbox every few minutes, set aside 2 or 3 chunks of time per day where you devote your complete attention to dealing with email. It will take much less time in the long run and you will save time by not being distracted from other work.
- Turn off all electronic notifications – text, email, phone, both audible and visual – when you’re doing focused brain work to keep your attention from being diverted.
- Gather all materials you need BEFORE you begin working on any project that requires your complete focus. Whether it’s pads and pens, craft materials, research notes, or online sources, get it all together before you start. Looking for information and sources online in particular can lead to wasted time down the rabbit hole of the world wide web!
- Commit to working on brain-intensive tasks for a specific period of time before taking a break. It can be hard to get started sometimes and your tendency to distract yourself with other things will siphon valuable time away before you realize it. Set a timer for a minimum of 30 minutes and commit to working without a break until the timer goes off. Then take a short break if you need it and set the timer again for another 30-minute interval. You may find that once you get rolling you won’t need the timer, but it’s a good anti-procrastination tool to help you get started! (check out the Pomodoro Technique.)
- Save your most difficult tasks that require focus and concentration for your most productive time of day. Everyone’s body clock is different. Some of us find that our best time to do heavy thinking work is first thing in the morning, but others find that their brain really doesn’t function at its peak productivity until late afternoon, or even late at night. Find your best time and schedule a block of time then each day for uninterrupted, focused work.
The multi-tasking habit may be tough to break. But if you do, you will find that as you focus on giving your complete concentration to just one thing at a time, it will improve the quality of your work, shorten the time it takes to get it done, and give you back time in your day for whatever you’re looking for – more productive work, family time, or just plain fun!