The New Yorker once ran a cartoon of a guy looking at a pop-up box on his computer that read: "The Internet wants to destroy your productivity." There was one option to click: "Always allow."
Well, not so funny, really. Chilling. And only a partial reflection of today's madness since many other distractions are lined up, hourly, to sap your productivity and balance, from colleagues and customers to your own wandering mind.
That's why Washington leadership development consultant Devora Zack – an American whose mother was born in Vancouver – has seen so many of the people she is trying to help struggling because they are overwhelmed by everything they have to do. "They see no way out," she says in an interview.
Actually, they grasp for one possible solution: Multitasking. But multitasking is a myth and a mirage. The myth, she says, is that we can do more than one thing at one time. In fact, neuroscience shows that we can't. Essentially, when we think we're multitasking we're task switching, alternating between duties.
And the mirage is that we can be more productive through task switching. In fact, she says studies suggest we're 40 per cent less effective than when we focus on one task. We are facing an epidemic of what she calls "scattered brain syndrome," and as well, she notes, studies show the grey matter shrinks under too many stimuli.
The answer – the box that ought to be available and checked in that New Yorker pop-up box – is single tasking, which happens to be the title of her new book. (
Single tasking means being here, now – immersed in one thing at a time. It will give you energy and focus. "We get more done and have more time available to us when we are fully focused," she says.
Single tasking requires you to manage your mind, turning off the inner monologue that wants to lure you into other matters. You must discipline it – discipline yourself – to focus on the one thing happening now. The second requirement is controlling your environment so single tasking will be easier.
Not simple, but she has suggestions and techniques to assist you. It starts with deciding what matters most in a given situation and committing. You'll be assisted by regular doses of meditation, practising focus, and more generally controlling self-talk, bringing your brain back to what's before you.
One vital technique is "the parking lot." When something comes to mind beyond the immediate task, you know you are supposed to brush it off, but it will keep coming back unless you write it down. Once it's marked on a notepad, Post-it note or your smartphone, the mind can release it until you bring it back from the parking lot.
But beware of your smartphone. She compares it to a puppy that is always demanding attention. As you write a note in it, there will be a temptation to check e-mail, the weather or a news site. "It's not that the dog is bad or the phone is bad. It's how you manage it," she says. "If your phone is so smart, can you teach it to heel?" If not, a notepad may be the answer.
That opens up an important aspect of controlling your environment: separation. Our gadgets, increasingly, are like Swiss Army knives, splendidly able to perform many tasks. But it's not so wonderful for single taskers. She stopped using an alarm clock as she found when travelling it was simpler to use her phone. But that means when she reaches to turn off the alarm in the morning, she is immediately opening herself up to texts and e-mails. And if she glances at it in the middle of the night… well, you likely know the result. So buy a single tasking alarm clock to control your environment for single tasking.
Similarly, if you're on vacation, it's easy to take photos with your phone or tablet. But if that means you'll get lured back to the office through the e-mails or seduced into the news stream you are trying to break loose from, take along a single-tasking camera.
Managing your environment, perhaps more crucially, involves handling people and their expectations. An important element is to carve out time when you won't be interrupted so you can attain flow on a project. We don't like to do that, however, as we think we're letting people down. "But it's the reverse. When you are attempting to be available to everyone you will be letting people down by not getting much done," she says.
Put a Post-It note on your door indicating you're writing a report and will be available at, say, 1:30 p.m. Indicate people can leave a note and you'll call them then. That explains why you're busy, answers their question about when you will connect, and shows your willingness to help them. Or try a system of red, orange, and green Post-it notes for the door, after alerting colleagues yellow means they can interrupt you if urgent while red means please don't interrupt.
Single tasking applies to leisure and family time as well. Focus on the individual or task at hand. And take leisure time, to reboot and gain energy for work. "You can breathe a sigh of relief. There's a way out of the madness. Focus on what's in front of you. It can change the way you work and live for the better," she says.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter