This is an edited excerpt from Ease: Strategies to Manage Overwhelm in Times of “Crazy Busy” by Eileen Chadnick. Reprinted with permission of author. Copyright 2013 by Eileen Chadnick. All rights reserved.
Check out a bunch of career ads these days, and count how often you see the word multitasking in the requisite skills. As complexity increases and competing demands and volumes of work soar, the person who can multitask gets the job, keeps the job, and, well, keeps getting more stuff to do.
Work warriors wear their multitasking badges proudly. Then we take this skill home and multitask some more.
Multitasking is similar to how we felt about eating a lot of carbs in the early ’90s. The more, the better, right?
Wrong! Flying in the face of old notions, we’re now learning that multitasking is, in fact, not the shiny attribute it’s been touted to be all these years. While we do need skills to handle diverse demands in work and life, too much multitasking costs us precious energy, productivity, and even critical-thinking capacity.
Our brains aren’t built for certain kinds of multitasking. Sure, we can walk and talk and eat and listen at the same time. But when we ask our brain to process unrelated information with multiple critical-thinking tasks at once, we actually compromise our short-term memory and cognitive-processing capacity.
In fact, what our brains do is switch from task to task – back and forth, back and forth. The faster we ask it to do so, the faster it switches. All this switching takes energy and amounts to wasted brain energy. This precious energy is not focused on thinking but, rather, is lost on switching.
Think of it like a driving a car. If you drive 20 kilometres on the highway and then drive the same distance in the city, you will use more gas during the city drive. The constant stopping, turning, and shifting gears consumes more gas. The distance is the same, but the switching takes more energy.
Now put this analogy into the context of your day. If your entire day is filled with juggling tasks and little focused time, you will likely spend much more energy and feel more depleted than if you put the same amount of hours into your work with more focused time. And you might not be as sharp and effective, because you might compromise your brain’s capacity to give you its best.
The Story at a Glance
Here’s an embarrassing yet true story. I had just written part of a first draft of this chapter (without this story that I’m about to tell you). It was a Sunday, and I was getting ready to go to the gym but wanted to call a friend before I left so that I could share some news with her. I phoned her and, while chatting, decided to simultaneously pack my gym bag, change my clothes, and feed the cat. I must have come across like a moron, because she called me on it. As I was trying to relay a story to her, my focus was completely scattered, and I couldn’t get a proper sentence out. I kept losing my train of thought.
Not only did I forget key items to put in my gym bag, but I also couldn’t communicate for the life of me. I was all over the place! Realizing what I had just done gave me a great laugh, especially because I had just finished writing about the perils of multitasking. But the episode reinforced for me how much we have become ingrained in our multitasking habit; we are always trying to jam in too many activities at once. This example was benign. But where else in our lives do we compromise our attention by attempting to do too many things at once?
I know, thankfully, in my coaching calls, I create a space and environment where I can completely focus my attention on the client. But at other times, when I’m doing other work, maybe I could do better.
How about you? Are you over-expressing that juggler tendency? Do you build in enough focus time? Are your thoughts fuzzy at times? Are you depleted at the end of the day?
Flow: The sweetness of focused time
Our brains actually love to focus, and one of the rewards of focus can be an experience of flow. This is when you are in a zone where you lose yourself in an activity, and everything feels effortless and right. You feel completely on, and it is easy to lose your sense of time. Not only does this flow feel good in the moment, but it also provides a longer-lasting sense of gratification. Experts, such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, say flow is an essential ingredient to finding engagement and more joy and even success in our everyday work and lives. Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced ‘chick-sent-me-high’), a renowned psychologist and educator, has written extensively on the topic, including the book Finding Flow.
The idea isn’t to do less work per se but, rather, to find ways to focus our attention and build in more time for focused activity. And while our work might not offer the luxury of focusing for hours on end, there might be pockets of time we can carve out with intention.
Take a timeout from your love affair with multitasking. Learn to tame the juggler in you and create more opportunities for focus time. Notice what happens to your productivity, energy, and overall sense of well-being. If you can’t get enough flow time in your workday, try to include some in your after-work time.
Start small. Don’t expect to tame the multitasking habit overnight. Start small, and set aside short periods of time – even as little as 20 minutes – every day for a week for focused activity. Commit to putting your attention on one thing at a time – perhaps working on a particular project or completing a portion of it before moving on to another. Then observe the impact that this focused time had on you. Were you more productive? Sharper and more creative? Did the time fly by? Was your energy increased or depleted?
You can then build up to longer periods as you see fit or are able to accommodate in your day.
Support your intention with the right environment. Turn off your phone, close your door, clear your desk – do anything that will give you the space and time to focus.
Schedule it. Earlier, we talked about putting yourself into your own schedule for thinking time. Use this strategy to ensure you have focused time for important thinking activities. If you have a report to write or a plan to develop, block off time without other competing priorities and see how much more productive you will be. Beware of distractions that will impede your focus time.
Coach others to do the same. If you are a leader, try to encourage others to set apart time to focus on a particular task. It sounds simple, but in our frenzied world of continuous rushing, focused time seems to be lost in the shuffle. You might notice a marked improvement in your own productivity as well as in that of your team.
Focused time will give you more energy and sharper thinking and will result in more productivity for your efforts.
- You will become more energy efficient with your time.
- You will experience more clarity in your thinking.
- You will enjoy a longer-lasting feeling of engagement that often results from flow and focused activities.
- You will experience more productivity and satisfaction in your day.