Podcast 131: How to avoid multitasking

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This is podcast 131: how to avoid multitasking. By now you’ve heard, if not from me, then from many others, that multitasking is a bad idea. That’s true. It’s not effective. It makes your work take longer, you’ll make more mistakes and it increases your chances of not finishing the main thing you need to do because you’ve gone down so many rabbit holes.

I’ve also written that there are situations where multitasking can be helpful, such as when you don’t have a time crunch to finish something and being able to spread your attention around makes it easier for you to get some work done on it. You’ll go slower, but it’s better to get something done than nothing, as I talked about in the previous podcast.

For those of you who want more ideas on how to avoid it, or stop it in its tracks, here you go. I work at home most of the time and this first tip may not work for you otherwise. I talk to myself. I narrate what I’m doing. I’ll say, okay, I’m going to write the intro for the podcast. As I write, I realize I want to look something up online to quote in the podcast, so I tell myself I’m doing that. If I see other tabs still open when I go online, I tell myself I’ll look at them later.

I believe this works because our minds kind of encourage us to multitask by constantly throwing new thoughts and ideas in our paths. But we can truly only focus on one thing at a time. Hint: this is why multitasking actually doesn’t even exist, much less work. When you talk to yourself, your words come out of your mouth one after the other in a single coherent stream, ideally. It’s not like in your head where words and ideas can be jumbled together. You verbalize one thought at a time. This makes your current task you’re telling yourself about stand out from all the others rattling around in your brain.

Another method I use is a checklist. A listener asked me to do an episode about multitasking and she gave the example of all the little tasks she needs to create an Instagram post. I have a checklist to do this podcast. I’ve been doing it for a few years now, so I know the ropes. I know every little thing I need to get done to create, record, post and promote my podcast. So, why a checklist?

Back in January of 2017 I did a whole episode about the power of checklists. A surgeon even wrote an entire book about how incredibly important checklists are. He notes that in a busy hospital where life or death situations are common, it’s incredibly easy to have one’s attention diverted and make even the smartest doctor forget to perform a critical routine task. In my case and my listener’s, we’re likely to get our attention scrambled by calls, messages, emails and shiny squirrels that pop up online.

But if we know we have a checklist to consult, we’re less likely to succumb to distraction. Sometimes I use both techniques at once when I complete a step and then tell myself, okay, onto step four!

The other problem checklists address is complexity. Even if you know how to do a job and it doesn’t seem that hard, it may still have many moving parts and if for some reason you omit a step, the end result will be unsatisfactory or even fail.

Complexity also includes change. I’ve changed things I do regarding my podcast over time and my checklist reminds me of those changes so I don’t have to rely on remembering them.

I want to be consistent in the way I do things; that’s important for my business. It would feel stressful to have to remember every tiny thing and do it the same way in the same order each time. The checklist relieves me of that. As soon as I complete item number 1, I go back to my list and see what item number 2 is. There’s no downtime for me to wonder what’s next and leave space for distraction to come in.

My third tip is to use an alarm or some other interrupter that reminds you to check whether what you’re doing right then is the right thing to do. If the alarm finds you doing the work you intended to spend that time on, then you’re good. If it finds you down a rabbit hole, then you can haul yourself back out of it.

An alarm can help you keep track of how often you are getting distracted, percentage-wise, and see if you need to do more to prevent that. If you make notes about what you’re doing when the alarm sounds, you can also get a picture of how your entire day is spent and either pat yourself on the back or comb through my previous podcast episodes for help.

What you can do right now: try one or all of these methods of avoiding multitasking. Talk yourself through the steps of your project. Refer to your checklist to keep your project on track. Use an alarm to confirm that you’re spending your time the way you intended. Try all three or mix and match!

Multitasking vs. Creativity

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Here’s another, unsung reason that multitasking is not so great: it stifles creativity. I’ve been reading Marc Lesser’s book, Less: Accomplishing More by Doing Less. He focuses a lot on what “doing” is. Much “doing” is what he calls busyness. It’s extra effort we put in because we feel it’s required, or we’re just not comfortable not doing, or we crave activity of some kind.

Often we multitask by listening to tapes while driving, or talking on the phone while taking a walk. It feels good to get those two tasks out of the way by doing them at the same time. Yet when we’re driving or washing dishes or walking around the lake, we’re not really doing just that one thing.

We’re letting our minds wander a bit, observing what’s around us, feeling the soapy water on our hands. Those are the times when insights come to us. I’m talking about “aha” moments such as the famous one Archimedes had in the bath. And this is not just for artists and scientists. Creativity is important in all facets of life.

The next time your find yourself trying to get too much done in too little time by doing it all at once, remember that if you allow some space, some ease to come in, the answers may come with them. You won’t always have a magnificent brainstorm when you let your mind be quiet. Regular practice encourages your brain to think in new ways and make you more productive without working harder.

Peaceful walking from LaPrimaDonna’s photostream

Why Multitasking Sucks

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Multitasking has the same effect on your productivity that drinking too much has on your wittiness at a party. You think it’s increasing, but it’s actually decreasing. In both cases, people seem happily unaware of this fact.

By now, you must’ve heard that multitasking is a boondoggle. It doesn’t make you more productive. In fact, it makes you less productive. Just look online for studies galore showing this, going back more than ten years.

I don’t want to harangue you about why it’s a bad thing to do. At least, not in the traditional productivity ways. This is the real reason you shouldn’t do it: it’s really bad for your relationships with people.

People can tell when you’re not listening to them. And they don’t like it.

I get compliments all the time on my listening skills. When people come up with something specific about me that they like, it’s usually that I’m a good listener. That’s delightful, since it’s a big part of my work.

Some things that make me a good listener:

  • I am not thinking about something else when I listen
  • I am not doing something else when I listen
  • I am not planning what I’m going to say next when I listen.

Shall I be more specific? I’m not looking at email, reading text messages, checking voicemail, tweeting, Facebooking, watching TV, having a simultaneous conversation with someone else, planning my weekend, doing a craft project or shopping on eBay.

Here’s a test. How many times have you misunderstood or not heard something, which then caused delays, mistakes, glitches and other time consuming problems?

That pretty much ate up any time you might have saved by multitasking.

When I give my full attention to the person who’s speaking, I’m also giving them other things. Respect, attention, compassion, support and understanding. Everyone deserves those things. People crave those things too.

Truly listening to someone is a gift that’s deeply appreciated.

Your relationships with colleagues, employees, clients, family and friends will all improve when you stop doing nine million things at once and start really listening.

I know it can be hard to resist distractions to listening well. How do you do it?

Multitasking Revisited

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One man band
My previous, multitasking-bashing post may have given the impression that I'm against multitasking. I'm not. I'm for anything that helps you get your work done. Multitasking, or the illusion thereof, is appropriate when:

  1. You have a short attention span
  2. You crave novelty
  3. You're easily bored
  4. You're energized when there's a lot going on at once
  5. Deadlines motivate and thrill you

The caveats here are that:

  1. You need to be actually accomplishing things, not just spinning your wheels (however fast they go)
  2. You don't create crises for others and hinder their work
  3. You do not alienate people by giving them only half your attention
  4. You're aware that you're not getting things done faster or even more effectively, you're just using a work style that suits you

I'm a firm believer in finding ways to be organized and efficient that work with the way you are now, not the person you think you should be. Change your environment to suit you, not the other way around.

Personally, I hate multitasking. When I do it, I find that I can remember the primary task I did, but the secondary focus ones get forgotten. That means I have to go back and check to see if I did them, which is a waste of time and annoying to boot.

There's very little on the Internet in support of multitasking! This article is one of the few. Vos Savant makes some very good points, such as why talking on the phone while driving is completely different from talking to your passenger.

One Man Band from Jaroslaw Pocztarski's photostream.

What Should You Focus on Today?

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Okay, this is not one of those posts that gives you a formal method for prioritizing your to do list once and for all. That’s not really my style. Here’s a post about not prioritizing, though.

Today I’m offering you a different way of looking at figuring out what to do next. A way that I hope will make you go, ahhhh. Because a bunch of rules to follow about what to do when just makes you cranky sometimes. Here goes:

Do the thing you’re inspired to do.

That’s it. When you are feeling full of good juju about a project, the work you do on it is going to be fabulous. And you’ll feel good about it. What could be better, I ask you?

Now, this might sound like you get to wait around for the muse and you can just go eat ice cream because you’re inspired to. I’m betting that eating ice cream is not on your to do list, though (because, really, no one should need to be reminded to eat ice cream. That’s just scary.).

To be clear, we’re just talking about the things you’ve already decided are a good idea to do.

We’re also not talking about the stuff that has a looming deadline. Yes, you have to do that stuff. The projects that don’t fall into that category are all prospective candidates for your work-energy today. So work you do on any of them is progress.

If you’re totally in love with all your projects, fantastic! You still have to choose something to work on now, today, because we live in a space time continuum that does not allow you to work on more than one thing simultaneously (even multitasking is not truly simultaneous. And I don’t recommend multitasking anyway.

This actually does dovetail with more standard advice about prioritizing, that you should use your most mentally alert time to do work that requires you to think hard. Use your low energy times for shuffling papers and sorting emails.

This strategy will bring out your best work.

When you pick something to focus on that inspires you, that project gets a rush of happy oomph to move it forward. And you’ll feel great. Did I mention that part yet?

Get out your listy list and scan down it, hunting for the thing that makes your heart sing. Whee! Then go do it and bask in the fulfillment of doing great work.