How many people do you know, perhaps yourself included, who pride themselves on their ability to multi-task? The perception is that we’re capable of getting a lot of things done simultaneously. But, here’s the thing: there’s really no such thing as multi-tasking. Our brain is not able to focus on multiple tasks at the same time.
According to Gary Keller, author of The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results, “Juggling is an illusion…In reality, the balls are being independently caught and thrown in rapid succession…It is actually task switching.”
Switching back and forth between activities very quickly (what we perceive to be multi-tasking) causes our brain to burn up oxygenated glucose. This rapid-fire swing from one task to another causes our brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we are left feeling exhausted and disoriented.
Joanne Tombrakos, author of It Takes an Egg Timer, A Guide to Creating the Time For Your Life, says: “Multi-tasking is great in the kitchen when you are trying to time the chicken to be ready at the same time as the potatoes. But do not assume it is a great way to manage a workday.”
Multi-tasking gives the illusion of productivity, but actual is a detriment to productivity. Multi-tasking means doing many things at the same time, yet not fully focusing on any of them. In addition to depleting energy, multitasking makes us prone to making mistakes and missing nuances.
As Gary Keller writes, “When we think we’re multi-tasking we’re actually multi-switching…we think we’re being productive. We are, indeed, being busy. But in reality we’re simply giving ourselves extra work.
A study of adults between the ages of 50-80, conducted by the MetLife Mature Market Institute, found that consistent single tasking ensures that your decision making skills last late into your senior years. The researchers found that the biggest predictor of a sound decision maker was a high capacity for strategic attention, coupled with the ability to filter the most important data from less relevant information. Single tasking was determined to be one of the best ways to prime the mind for strategic attention.
So, how do we get off the hamster wheel and incorporate single tasking into our day? Here are some organizing tips that may help.
1. Make a list, either on paper or electronically, of what you need to accomplish today. Determine the most urgent task and designate a chunk of time (perhaps one hour, or 90 minutes) to work on that project.
2. Silence your phone and turn off auditory and visual alerts that new email has arrived; focus on the task at hand for the allotted time.
3. Close the door to your office so you can focus uninterrupted. If you work in a cubicle, place a chair in the doorway with a sign that says “my door is closed” and position your body facing away from the door.
4. If other thoughts pop into your head as you’re working, get them out of your brain and onto a piece of paper. Then return to the task at hand. When you’ve worked on the task for the earmarked time, you can then address those other items.
5. Set an alarm or a timer to keep you on track. If you are a visual learner, consider one of my favorite organizing tools, the TimeTimer®. This timer visually depicts the passage of time; the red disk gets smaller and smaller as time passes, graphically depicting how much time you have left. Click here to buy Time Timer
6. Once your timer goes off, physically get up and take a walk around your office, take a drink of water, or talk briefly to a colleague. Then return to the next task on your list. This break allows your brain to move easily to the next task without overwhelming you.
7. Be careful of social media, email, television and other technology. Not only are they time robbers, but they can easily distract you from the task at hand. Save time for them after you’ve completed the tasks on your to do list.
As Charles Dickens wrote, “He did each single thing as if he did nothing else.’ Or, to quote Steve Jobs, “Be like a postage stamp…stick to one thing until you get there.”