Multi-tasking’s glory days are a thing of the past. The ROI is simply not worth it. You’re uneasy, anxious, and not focused while becoming increasingly frustrated at your lack of progress.
When multi-tasking, your brain is running through what needs to be done concerning the other tasks while it’s trying to do something else entirely. I hate to say it, but this is the recipe for ineffectiveness. Multi-tasking thins out your efforts, thoughts, and actions, spreading them widely rather than focusing on what’s in front of you through to completion.
Let’s even give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. We are intelligent, high energy doers who say ‘bring it on’ rather than ‘hold on a sec’. We revel in adding more to our plate (all you StrengthFinder Achievers out there…I’m talking to you!) and find immense joy in checking off the boxes. We have no doubt we can bring discipline to our multi-tasking.
The thing that trips us up here is that often times the simple task is actually not so simple. It becomes complicated, isn’t easily figured out, or unforeseeables come up that require more attention. I remember a weekend, when inspired by Oprah that I could remodel my bathroom in either a week, a weekend, or a day (I chose the day’s worth of difficulty), I dove in with such vigor while I committed first to painting. Painting reversed into wall prep, later followed by moving the sink away from the wall…which turned into new flooring because the sink pulled up the tiles. It took 6 months and a plane trip by my dad to finish that 1/2 bath. A simple thing turned very complex. The same can happen to your tasks as you dive in, your multi-tasking of simple things turns to multi-tasking of complex things.
Ready for some good news? It takes a simple shift to get you out of this habit, and there are many productivity tools that can help you stay on the path (check out the Pomodoro method here). Your biggest hurdle in making this change? Understanding multi-tasking is not in your best interest…no matter what the job description says or what we grew up celebrating, I encourage you to avoid its temptation. Still want to get the thrill of checking off boxes? One part of the Pomodoro method is chunking low level tasks together and just crank those out over a 1/2 hour of so. Since the brain power needed is minimal, with dedicated focus of your attention and completing each task before the next, you will cruise through. Doing a more complex task will then have more focus to it and a much better chance minimizing distractions. There are lots of apps and systems out there, it’s finding what works best for you so it sticks.
Here’s some good ol’ neuroscience to consider:
The PFC, pre-frontal cortex, is your brain’s workhorse with many responsibilities: decision making, recall, understanding…it is also where our short-term memory is processed. When we receive information, the PFC holds it in the immediate and decides how to process and act on it. The PFC can handle 4-5 (some say up to 7) pieces of information at a time (think back to how you used to remember phone numbers) before it begins to get overwhelmed. While the PFC can HOLD multiples of information, it can only take action on one thing at a time… a systematic approach.
Now, you still may think that the above doesn’t sound so bad…and on paper, it doesn’t. But, it’s the results we see and how we feel that tells a different story. Though small and mighty, the PFC uses up a ton of our glucose resources, so when your day is spent handling all these distractions…you too feel spent! All your fuel was going to the PFC. Since the PFC is also very easily distracted, if you are juggling things in your mind and not disciplining your focus, you will find yourself easily pulled to a different thought. This is the beginning of starting tasks and not finishing them, of getting things done halfway, half-well.
Let’s leverage the power of your PFC rather than ignore the neuroscience. You can begin doing this by:
bringing awareness to your task list, you most likely prioritize them already.
Commit to execution, be fierce about not moving on until task is complete, be fierce about avoiding distractions.
When you find yourself shifting your energy…stop! Conscious awareness that you were about to shift tasks is the opportunity to interrupt your pattern!
Make the better choice and resume focus and energy to task at hand
If your default method is to multi-task and you become aware when you are about to do it…that is the moment of opportunity for changing habits. Once you become consciously aware of this, your brain gives you almost 1/2 second to choose the new habit that you want to cement. Like anything else, if you can find a way to measure and track the results from changing your behavior, it will guide you to figuring out what works best for you.
It may help to let your staff know what you are doing. By informing them of your efforts, they will understand and not be hurt when your focus needs to be elsewhere for the time. They will also be more apt and conscientious of whether or not to interrupt you. It’s better to have them understand you are trying to improve and therefore working on a behavior rather than offended when you don’t immediately shift your attention to their ask.