We live in the age of multitasking. Your eyes are locked on your phone while having a conversation. Checking email and on a conference call. Turned off the Zoom video so no one can see you’re making lunch and checking in on your toddler, who no longer has daycare available.
We blast from one task to the next like we’re an octopus with eight arms. Unfortunately, we still only have one brain which can only focus on one task at a time.
Multitasking isn’t what you think. It’s not focusing on more than one task at a time; it’s task switching. Stop there. If you’re about to argue that you can do multitasking well, I won’t argue. However, science has proven that instead of being hyper-productive, your multitasking is actually impairing your brain.
Can you get a ton done by multitasking? Sure. Will you be prone to mistakes and get less than your best results? You betcha.
Multitasking is Messy
A couple of weeks ago, I was finishing up some work and had dinner going on the stove. On top of it, someone needed my attention in the otddher room, and my dog decided it was treat time. Too bad I wanted to hop on Amazon to buy some much-needed new mugs.
Quickly, I switched tabs in my browser to check out my options. Earlier in the day, I spotted some mugs that looked good. I was going to buy one set with handles and a set without. A six-mug set cost $36; they were microwave safe and the correct size. Perfect.
The voices in the other room turned up in volume, and my Alexa alarm sounded, letting me know it was time for the next step in my recipe. I wanted to get my order in before moving on to the next phase of the evening.
I scanned Amazon and looked at the small thumbnails. Bam! Same pictures and manufacturer, only $24. Who needs to pay $36 when they can pay $24!? Not me. In the cart, ordered, done.
Let’s flash forward two weeks. (Yes, Amazon in Australia, even with Prime, takes a couple of weeks.)
My new mugs arrived.
Imagine my surprise when I opened the box, and I had one mug with a handle and one without. There were two mugs total, not twelve. Each one cost me $24. Ugh.
Rushing, multitasking, pushing my productivity to the limits, I messed up.
Nobody does one thing at a time. Why should I?
If you want to be a serial do-er, do it. However, it’s important to recognize the pitfalls so you can avoid them.
There are many great suggestions on how to get focused and get more done. Before you run off and hit google hard, ask yourself these seven questions to see if it helps get you back on a good path before you too end up with two crappy mugs for $50.
7 Questions to Avoid Multitasking Pitfalls
Do I need to be 100% focused on a single task in this moment?
Take a beat. What’s the answer? If your task at hand needs your brainpower, choose to give it 100%. If you’re watching the latest episode of the Blacklist while scrolling through Instagram, you’re probably good to go.
Is this the right time for me to do this task?
My family needed me, and pots were boiling. Right time to place an order? Probably not. Notice when you’re doing something to squeeze it in and cross it off your list at the wrong time. That’s when accidents happen.
Where does this fall on my list of priorities?
When something matters, it climbs to the top of your list. However, sometimes we don’t look at relative priorities. Your child needs your time and attention, and you want to shoot off a few more emails. Can you honestly manage both priorities at the same time? Sure, if you’re ok that one or the other will get less than your best.
What’s the risk if I’m less than 100%?
Everything has a risk – a risk of not doing it, a risk for trying, and a risk for multitasking. Don’t be the person who didn’t think it through. Acknowledge the risk and then decide… multitask, or is there one that needs all of you?
What’s the payoff if I remove all other distractions?
Just like there are risks, there are payoffs – the upside. A little motivation goes a long way. Are you putting the finishing touches on a proposal to a new client? Upside! Are you skimming old reports to get history on a situation? Still upside, but maybe not as big. When you’re clear on the upside, it’s easier to let other tasks that are nothing more than distractions fall by the wayside.
There is a scale for risk and reward – develop an awareness of yours.
How can I resist the urge to pick up my phone or email or read an article or watch a video while doing something else?
There are some excellent apps out there to help bolster your willpower. Some give you great analytics (where are you actually spending your time online vs. where you think?), gamification (grow forests and protect a cute blue blob) and powerful techniques (Pomodoro Technique helps you work in bursts and have breaks too.) Here are a few to check out. I’m not affiliated with any of them.
Do you know where your time goes online? RescueTime can help. How often are you popping into email, or is your five minutes on Twitter really five minutes? I’ve used this, and it’s eye-opening. You can change when you know the reality of where you’re putting your time. The free version should work well for most people.
Forest: Stay Focused
Get help keeping your hands off of your phone with Forest. You set time intervals, plant a seed for a virtual tree, and let it grow while you get focused. In the pro version, you can’t exit the app without a warning that your tree will die. Your use of the app to support your focus also results in real trees being planted by partner organizations.
Ready to give the Pomodoro Technique a try? (I’m a fan!) What sets Focus To-Do apart from a simple timer is both analytics and your ability to link each pomodoro to a specific task. There is a free version that should work well for most people.
Do you use Chrome? Otto is also a pomodoro timer, but also you can choose to block sites that you know distract you. Even better (or worse?), when you get distracted from your focus task and go to those forbidden sites, a cute little blue guy on your screen gets hurt. Who wants to hurt a cute blue blob? Not you and not me either. Free to use and some good add-ons in the very reasonably priced pro version.
Why does it matter?
If you are satisfied getting a lot done superficially, and that works for the tasks at hand, it probably doesn’t matter if you multitask. However, the “why” probably goes beyond the task at hand. “Why does it matter” is a bigger picture question. Does this task have broader implications if it’s almost awesome, if I’m mostly present, or kinda engaged?
You can set up schedules and tracking to improve your focus. However, change starts with awareness and a desire to change.
Are you ready to give up your multitasking ways when they’re not serving you?