Is time ever on our side?
I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who wasn’t concerned about the ticking of their life clock. Maybe they don’t feel an overwhelming anxiety about it, but they are aware of due dates and schedules.
When you’ve got a big project to make progress on, emails coming in, the phone ringing, and more Slack notifications than you know what to do with, you start to wonder how you can get everything finished before you go a little batty.
Doing several things at once starts to sound like a good idea. Why wouldn’t it? Why focus on one thing at a time when I can do everything all at the same time and finish twice as fast, right?
The logic behind that makes sense. The reality of it is quite the opposite. In fact, Dr. JoAnn Deak, editor, psychologist, and author of Your Fantastic Elastic Brain, argues that it’s foolhardy to think so:
”When you try to multitask, in the short-term it doubles the amount of time it takes to do a task and it usually at least doubles the number of mistakes.
That’s a pretty damning assessment of multitasking. The way the world seems set up, multitasking appears to be the most efficient way of managing your tasks. In fact, some work environments seem to demand it. However, the way our brains have evolved, we don’t have what it takes to actually accomplish that.
We’re probably not going to be able to affect any meaningful change in the way that modern workplaces are run. More often than not, we’re expected to produce as much as possible. As a result, we often try to give the appearance that we’re doing multiple things at once to avoid getting in trouble.
It’s clearly not the way to go. It’s also clearly not the healthiest method of working.
If multitasking is detrimental to efficiency and our own bodies, what can we do about it?
Turn off the distractions
We live in a time when everything around us is constantly vying for our attention. Our phones are ringing off the hook, coworkers are requesting our help, and notifications are popping up incessantly.
There’s a comparison frequently used these days to judge what is worth our time and what is useless—the signal-to-noise ratio. It’s “a measure used in science and engineering that compares the level of desired signal to the level of background noise.”
In the case of this example, the “noise” is everything trying to steal your attention away. The “signal” is the work you’re trying to do. If the noise is higher than the signal, then you’ve got to shift the ratio the other way.
As much as you can, eliminate the distractions. Send the calls to voicemail, close the door or let your coworkers know you’re busy, and set that device to vibrate or Do Not Disturb. Focus on the signal; forget the noise.
One thing at a time wins the race
Working on just a single task at a time sounds like the best way to fall behind on our work, right? Well, that’s what we’ve come to believe is the case.
I can tell you it’s not.
I’m not talking about slowing things down to a crawl. Your work still needs to be done in a timely manner. However, instead of answering emails while on a conference call and signing forms, devote a bit time at the end of your day to working on just those emails. Nothing else.
Work on a single task until it’s complete and then move on to a different task. Keep on going until you’re finished with your work.
The goal here is focus. We need to focus all our attention onto a single task. Distractions take us away from our work. Studies have shown that it can take us around 25 minutes to bring our full focus back to what we were working on before getting interrupted.
Take out those interruptions entirely by doing a single thing until it’s finished.
Enjoy your time
This one is more of my personal opinion.
Work is work. No getting around that. However, work doesn’t always have to be a soul-sucking grind. Whenever possible, put on some nice music in the background—make it something you enjoy—and inject some life back into your work.
Some music that wasn’t seemingly created in an attempt to pull you away from your work is preferable. Stuff with recognizable lyrics or churning guitars is likely to steal away your focus. Make things nice. Your days can still have some pleasant moments in it.
For instance, I’ve got “Opera Radio” from Apple Music playing on my HomePod as I’m writing this because it’s music that’s helped me in the past. I’m breezing through this post with the help of the great Italian masters.
Falling into the trap of trying to multitask is understandable. I can tell you that I’ve done it many times. I still catch myself trying to do more than one thing at a time with my work.
The important thing is learning how to refocus your attention back to your current task at hand. Distracting moments are inevitable. We’ll never be able to get rid of them entirely.
Don’t become frustrated when they happen. Learn to live and work with them. Set up expectations in yourself and others that your time is yours. You need it to finish what you’re working on in a timely manner.
Resist the urge to fill your time with more noise. Work on the signal, cats.