The Weekly Challenge is a column that tackles self-improvement seven days at a time.
It's almost impossible for me to imagine those not-so-long-ago days when a writer working at her computer would have nothing to do but write. Correction: write or play Solitaire or maybe talk on the phone attached to the long curly cord at the other side of the house. But compared with the tidal wave of online distractions we face today – checking e-mail, reading the newspaper, updating our Facebook status, Tweeting, looking up recipes, et cetera – the good old days seem almost utopian in their simplicity.
And it's not just cyber space that drives our need to scratch multiple things off our to-do list simultaneously. Think about your day – you are probably almost always engaged in more than one activity: Walking the dog while answering e-mail; helping your kid with homework while you cook dinner with CNN on in the background. Many of these duty-double dips aren't a bad thing – if I didn't tidy while talking on the phone or watching TV, my house would be in a state of permanent disaster – but according to our old pal science, there are some forms of multitasking that actually hinder, rather than help the desire to T.C.B.
The Girl With the Grande Latte
To be honest, I didn't think this week's mission to mono-task was going to be particularly difficult. So I curb my tendency to have multiple web pages open, and avoid the admittedly terrible habit of background television. I kicked off the week by making the 10-minute walk to my neighbourhood coffee place without a phone or an iPod. I know, I know "How did she do it," you're wondering. And while, yes, it was simple, the mental blank slate also felt strange, sort of like I was starring in a movie about a woman walking to get coffee. And it took forever – was Starbuck's always this far away? On the plus side, there is a lot of research that says taking a walk is among the best way to clear you head and get those creative juices flowing (or to crack a case, if you happen to be a fictional detective). On the other hand, this is the time when I tend to catch up with friends on the phone, which is on par with caffeine in terms of a reason to get out of bed.
For most of us, efficiency isn't the only goal in life, which goes a long way toward explaining the devotion to doing it all (at the same time). "We multitask to make things more fun, or to make certain undesirable tasks feel more bearable," explains Dr. David Meyer, the director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan. Maybe your shirts-per-minute ratio suffers a bit because you're ironing while watching The View, but at least you're enjoying yourself (and at least you're ironing!). The true pitfalls arise when we try to focus on multiple activities that use the same area of the brain. Miraculous as it may be, the human computer simply isn't capable of doubling up, so when you're doing two things that both require language comprehension, what's actually happening is your brain is going back and forth. The result is a reduction in productivity. "Every time the brain switches back and forth there is a "warm up," which can be significant depending on the complexity of the task," Dr. Meyer says. I ask him how listening to music while writing ranks on the anti-achievement scale. His response: "Classical music is probably okay, but I don't recommend working on your article while listening to Metallica."
Time is not on my side
As expected, the most challenging part of singular focus was controlling the urge to surf the Web. Normally, one second I'm half way through an assignment, and the next I'm responding to an Evite or ordering a new green bin or reading about Justin Bieber's latest wardrobe sin. Not bouncing around was more than hard – it was almost impossible. I felt like an electric fence had been installed around my thoughts: The desire to check in on news – bzzzzzt; wanting to check fares on flights to Florida – bzzzzzt, and so on. I'm pretty sure that policing my focus became a form of multitasking in itself.
According to Dr. Meyer, multitasking often comes down to a pay-me-now-or-pay-me-later reality. Over the week, my productivity was way up. If I was willing to stick with it, I could probably end my workday around 3 p.m., which is tempting but not entirely realistic. Or fun. One of the best things about working from home is that I can make social calls in the middle of the day, or file invoices while catching up on episodes of 30 Rock. It is not the most efficient form of existence, but what's life without a little mid-work Metallica break?
The next challenge: Boost your mental dexterity by sitting down with the crossword puzzle every morning. Do you get better by the day? Feel smarter? Is it worth the investment or would you rather spend those precious minutes snoozing? Let us know at fb.me/globelifestream