You Cannot Multitask
No one can. So learn to do one thing at a time.
There are things we do all at once because that is what it takes to get the job done, and then there are the things we do all at once because we’re enticed and constantly compelled to click, login, scroll down, share. We have control over the latter, though it seems to be tipping more and more into the tech creator’s hand and away from the user’s best interest. Believe it or not, we have control over the former as well.
At home, it’s one thing. If you are like most Americans, you’ve adapted to a two-screen or “second screen” experience. You scroll Instagram and comment on photos while you’re watching The Bachelorette or The Voice. Sure, your attention to the show suffers, but the shows themselves have now built connections via the second screen to their audiences; they encourage this kind of behavior while trying to spin it into a more immersive experience.
At work, we need to take a different approach. Productivity is not about taking on a million things at once, it is about accomplishing tasks. Completion is the most important part of any project, right?
Most of you have read the studies done on attention and productivity, so for the sake of length, it should be sufficiently evident that human beings are not capable of thinking or doing two separate things at once. We know how important mindfulness has become in the workplace. Awareness and mindfulness are the Headline Clickbait Champions of 2017-18.
There is an easy way to cultivate mindfulness and to increase productivity: Stop Multitasking
When you do one thing at a time, you pay better attention to that one task. When you try to tackle two or three things at once, the studies have all shown that your brain is actually in a constant state of transition –– a switch flipping back and forth. This leads to less deep thinking, less flow-state inducement, and ultimately, to less successful work completion.
Have you ever finished a project and said, “If I had just had a little more on my plate to pull my attention away from the work at hand, I could have done a better job?”
When you take-on each project in a one-at-a-time fashion, you increase your focus. This allows you to proceed at a faster rate. Because of that focus, you are more likely to induce a flow state, where your brain puts the little tasks (the movement of your fingers or the commencement of repetitive motions) into auto-pilot, and your brain begins doing the wonderful work of subconscious processing. This is the only way to create those “Ah ha” moments of epiphany that help us innovate and progress.
When you complete the task you set out to do, you get a great sense of accomplishment and relief. Those feelings are like armor against burnout and frustration, which are born from feeling overwhelmed or ineffective.
The easiest way to quit multitasking is to go cold turkey. With the next item that comes across your desk, pause for a moment and take a deep breath. Prepare yourself by closing out other apps and pages. Turn your phone facedown if you cannot turn it off. Set your intention to work this project to completion without the distraction of other to-do items.
How does that feel? Can you see how your brain focuses? For me, multitasking is like looking at the night sky between conversations with friends and glances at my phone. I don’t really know what I’m looking at, but I still feel a small sense of stillness and smallness between laughs.
Doing one thing at a time is like turning off the porch light and staring into the night sky for minutes on end. Slowly, consistently, the number of stars in my field of vision grows. My mind wanders. I feel a sense of wonder and awe that begets more focus.
Before You Start Your Next Task
One: Stop. Breathe. Focus. Turn off distractions. Prime yourself to do this one project with all your faculties.
Two: Resist the urge to stop. Just keep taking baby steps until the path of progress slowly becomes apparent.
Three: When you’re done, put it away and check it off the list. Most importantly, pat yourself on the back or reward yourself with a cup of coffee. Reinforce the behavior of focusing on one thing at a time.
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