Multitasking And That Favorite Old Shirt

You know the one I'm talking about. The shirt that is faded, has a hole or two, and may even be missing a button. You know you need to stop wearing it (and your family members affirm that thought), but it just feels so comfortable when you put it on. There are numerous other shirts hanging in your closet and maybe even tucked away in a drawer, yearning to be your next favorite shirt, but you just won’t change.

Think of multitasking like that old shirt. More and more research is proving that it isn’t the best choice as a productivity tool. Scientific American found that "People who seem to be good at multitasking are simply good at being faster at switching back and forth between two things." You nod your head in agreement, but the next moment you feel overwhelmed by your work or life load, you'll reach for multitasking just like that favorite shirt on a lazy Saturday morning. It just feels so comfortable and gives you a (false) sense of getting things done.

You may even see the increased chaos in your day created by skipping from one task to another and rarely finishing anything. You consistently give in to your brain's natural desire to connect with any distraction that physically or mentally appears around you.  The thought of tossing multitasking out of your day, however, scares you because you aren’t sure what you would “wear” in its place.

If you're ready for a change in your mental wardrobe, try some of these suggestions to improve your productivity-and stop reaching for that same old tired strategy of multitasking:

  • Single task when possible. Try working on one item until it is finished or you have taken it as far as you can with your current resources.
  • Think in terms of outcomes and not activity. Instead of trying to just cross out items on a list, ask yourself what your desired outcomes are from your work today.
  • Ask yourself why you are choosing that other task right now. Many times multitasking is an excuse to not work more deeply on a task that is complex or uncomfortable. Identify the part of the task that is causing your procrastination, and make it a top priority to resolve it. And give yourself a reward when you are able to overcome your obstacle.
  • Combine tasks into larger blocks of time. Instead of working in your email 8-10 times a day for 5-10 minutes, carve out 2-3 extended blocks of time during your day to process your email.
  • Have an efficient means of capturing random thoughts. One reason your brain interrupts you is that you have lots of unfinished tasks. Your brain just wants to make sure you haven't forgotten to work on them. Writing down the random thought or making it a task item for later calms your brain and allows you to focus more clearly on the task at hand.
  • Start with small blocks of focus time. If you have been a chronic multitasker, working on a single task for 10 minutes may seem like an eternity. Determine the minimum amount of time you think you can focus on a task, and set a timer. Focus is like a muscle, so the more you work on improving it, the longer you will find that you can work on just one task.
  • Use the pomodoro technique. It's a formalized system where you develop a rhythm of working on a single task, taking a break, and then working on a single task again.  You can learn more about this tool at www.pomodorotechnique.com.
  • Turn off every notification possible. If it beeps, dings, plays a song from the 70's, or just blinks, stop it during the time you want to focus. Even if you don't respond to the notification, your brain is telling you that it's either the lottery commission, your boss, or your worst nightmare-and most likely it isn't either of them.
  • Use appropriate white noise to block out audible distractions. Try music without words or connection to a place or time in your memory. I can hear a song from the early 80's and I immediately think about my high school days. It's not that they are all bad memories. They just don't need to be in my head right now while I'm trying to work on something more important. I personally like movie soundtracks or classical music.

Like finally putting on that new shirt you bought three years ago, it may feel a little strange at first. With time, however, the reduced stress and increased productivity may just cause you to forget about that old shirt you held onto so long.

What is one step you could take to decrease multitasking in your day?