The Truth About Multitasking
“Lack of direction, not lack of time, is the problem. We all have twenty-four hour days”
― Zig Ziglar
Are you a multitasker? Does it feel good to be able to manage more than one task at a time or does it feel rather more like juggling or plate spinning?
In her audiobook ‘Get Organised: Do More in Less Time’ Clara Conlon suggests that the concept of multitasking may not present to us all of the benefits that we might imagine.
To be a good multitasker is to be able to manage several tasks effectively at any one time. We might think that with this method, no one task is left behind or that we can achieve a greater number of things in a set amount of time. We may also appreciate the idea that, because we have it all in hand at once, there is no need to prioritise. Clara, however, points out that the reality of multitasking is very different to the perceived benefits. Of course, most of us who multitask are not even aware that there is another way. It is simply the way that we have always done what has been required of us – often whilst complaining about it.
The truth is that the human brain is not capable of focussing on more than one cerebral activity at once and so when we undertake to perform several tasks at the same time, we are actually required to keep focussing and refocussing. This means that our length of focus for each individual task is shortened resulting in the loss of opportunity for a deep dive into the subject matter and improving the quality of our work. It also means that time is wasted in the process of moving from one job to another. If we constantly need to readjust our focus between tasks, we are susceptible to periods of time where we are distracted and open to procrastination. Procrastinating behaviour takes our time and energy and reduces the chances of our completing our work within the desired time frame.
When we apply our focus to one task at a time, we can perform it mindfully. This means that we remain present for the activity. We give it our full attention, avoiding projecting into the past or future and evoking unnecessary anxiety. When we give a task our full attention, we are able to recognise which parts of it have presented us with difficulty thereby learning where we need to improve our skillset or what obstacles have impeded our progress. When we are mindful in our work, we can also come to notice which aspects of the activity we enjoyed. This will help us to choose similar tasks in future when we are able. When we do this, future jobs will be done to the best of our ability.
What can we take from this?
We can conclude that whilst we may feel proud of our multitasking abilities and enjoy showcasing how much we have on our plate, we are actually wise if we focus on one job at a time, and complete each one in succession.
There are however, occasions where one particular task might be deliberately partnered with another to great effect.
For example, we may believe that a long drive to work, is wasted time unless it is coupled with some sort of planning task that can be done at the same time. This is may well be true, and they key thing here is that one of these tasks is automatic. Unless we are new to the road, driving is not a conscious activity for the most part, for most of us. We can leave our Unconscious Self to take care of the act of driving and to alert us if something unexpected happens which might require us to think, and we can get on with the activity of planning in the meantime. There is not much focussing and refocussing required here.
When we become conscious of where we put our focus and how many jobs are taking up space in our head, we can seek to introduce choice.
Set your intention to apply your focus to one conscious task at a time.
Write down a list of all your tasks.
Use the paper as a ‘brain dump’. Write down every one of your jobs without exception and without giving any thought or analysis as to the importance or urgency of any of them.
Whatever takes up space on the paper is now out of you head.
Now consider that to take the decision to perform your tasks consecutively will require you to prioritise in terms of urgency and importance.
To do this you can use Eisenhower’s Matrix. This means categorising you tasks into one of the following four:
Urgent and important
Urgent but not important
Important but not urgent
Not urgent or important
This enables you to place the tasks in order for them to be put in sequence.
Additionally, you may wish to consider ‘time batching’. According to Monday.com ‘time batching, also known as the Pomodoro technique, is a productivity system that helps individuals focus on a group of similar tasks during a dedicated time period without interruptions. Batching time helps minimize distractions for more concentrated workflow and attention to detail’.
In other words, you can cultivate the habit of regularly assigning particular periods of time to certain types of activity. For example, Monday is for admin, Tuesday is for creative planning, Wednesday is for reaching out and networking and Thursday is for down time.
Organising our time in this way reduces the need for us to decide what to focus on. Premade decisions preserve our cognition for the task itself rather than what tasks and when to do them.
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