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Get More Done with Multitasking. Just kidding! Multitasking is a Lie! 5 Strategies for Being More Focused Than Ever.

August 31, 2020

Reading Time: 9 minutes

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Episode 44 is all about multitasking – and how it’s basically the worst. 

Yes friend, I hate to break it to you – especially if you consider yourself to be an amazing multitasker – but multitasking just isn’t a real thing. It’s fake. It’s a lie – and it’s absolutely ruining your productivity. Science says so. 

So if multitasking’s not a thing – What on earth are we supposed to do instead? Well you’re in luck, because that’s exactly what this episode is about.

I’ll get into the nitty gritty of 

  • Why multitasking is a total lie

  • What you’re actually doing when you *think* you’re rocking and rolling at multitasking

  • How you can start cutting back on doing all the things at once, and 

  • 5 strategies for being more focused – and more productive than ever before


You are not good at multitasking. There, I said it. 

If you’ve ever told someone – or even told yourself that you’re great at multitasking, here’s the tough truth. You might be great at staying on top of multiple projects that are concurrently in motion, but you scientifically cannot focus on more than one thing at a time.

When you’re doing multiple things at once – checking social media, writing a proposal, listening in on a conference call, replying to text messages, while shooting a quick email – sure it feels like multitasking. 

And here’s the crazy thing –  it feels productive. And our brains LOVE it. In fact, multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop – basically rewarding your brain for losing focus and constantly searching for some kind of new external stimulation. 

In fact, one study found most people average only 3 minutes on any given task before switching to something else (and only 2 minutes on a digital tool before moving on to the next app).

Context Switching

But what’s actually happening, is something called context switching. You’re jumping from one thing to the next, and your brain – your limited short term memory – is desperately trying to keep up with what you’re doing in that moment. 

According to computer scientist and psychologist Gerald Weinberg, taking on additional tasks simultaneously can destroy up to 80% of your productive time.

You can’t do your best work when your attention is scattered across 12 open apps, 34 ongoing conversations, and a to-do list a mile long. 

I like to say that Busy is Not a Badge of Honor.  Just the same, Being “good” at Multitasking is absolutely NOT a badge of honor.

Understanding and accepting that multitasking is not real, and doing your best to eliminate the word multitasking for your vocabulary – and therefore, mindset – is the key to unlocking new levels of productivity in your life.

What do we do instead?

So if we’re going to stop multitasking – which might sound terrifying and impossible to some of you listening right now, What do we do instead? How do we tackle our tendency to multitask and instead focus our attention on just one thing at a time?

Call it What It Is

Welp – the first step is knowing and believing that multitasking isn’t real, and calling it what it is – context switching. 

Bring more Awareness to your work

Then, it takes bringing awareness to your work and recognizing when you’re hopscotching from one thing to the next and the next and back again.

Kind of like in meditation – when you notice your thoughts drifting to something other than your breath, you bring it back to that one thing – your breath. When you notice that you’re falling into old patterns of context switching, bring it back to that one thing you’re working on that’s most important. 

Try one or more of these 5 strategies

And then – take a stab at one or more of these 5 strategies for being more focused than ever.

First – Separate your work into 2 categories: Deep Work and Shallow Work.

Second – Set Expectations

Third – Clear your environment

Fourth – Keep a Shiny Things List

And Fifth – Use the Pomodoro Method

Deep Work v. Shallow Work

First up – Think of your work in two different categories.  Deep Work and Shallow Work. 

Deep Work includes the things on your to-do list that require focus, complex thought and problem solving. 

Shallow Work – on the other hand, is work that doesn’t require intense focus. It’s simpler, often low value work. Organizing emails, loading social media content into a scheduling tool, and data entry all could be examples. Shallow work is often easier to fall into – because easier on our brains, and it allows us to feel like we’re being productive. 

When you run your work through a Deep Work vs. Shallow Work filter, it gives you the ability to strategically schedule WHEN you’ll tackle your Deep Work, and WHEN you’ll tackle your shallow work – aiming to do your Deep Work when you know you’ll have the least distractions and best opportunity to focus.

Set Expectations

The second strategy for focus is to set expectations. This strategy helps with people distractions. 

Whether you’re working from home with kids nearby, working in an open office space or reporting to the corner office – getting focused work done takes a village. 

That means setting expectations with your family, team and coworkers. Plan ahead and know when you’ll need undistracted focused attention, and communicate that to others. Back in Episode 25 of It’s About Time, LeeAnn Moss reminded us that people can’t read our minds, and sometimes – very often, in fact, we have to ask for exactly what we need if we want it. 

Setting expectations with those around you, and letting them know that you need focused time will remove some of the potential distractions that might come your way during that time. 

Clear Your Environment

Once you’ve set expectations – your next step in focusing your attention is to clear your environment. This strategy helps with physical distractions.

Now if you report to work in an open office environment – you’re going to have the toughest road ahead. As much as open office environments are built for collaboration, they are rarely ALSO built for focus and concentration. 

Several years ago, in my PR Firm days, I worked in a gorgeous open office environment. Super chic glass and chrome desks. Sleek glass shelves lined the walls – covered with gold, silver and bronze awards. Fabulous chandeliers hung from the ceiling in our historic building. But the open office environment? I hate it. I called it the pit. 

The girl who sat behind me had no concept of indoor volume during her phone conversations. We were open to constant interruptions, Slack had just become a thing – so there were people popping by your desk, or sending slack messages almost constantly. It was a concentration nightmare. Getting work done during the day was SO hard, that I ended up taking work home most evenings and taking sick days to get things done while working from home. Working with headphones to classical music was one of the few ways that I could find focus amid the chaos.

But – whether you work in an open office environment or not – there are a few changes that you can make to your immediate environment to improve your ability to focus. And it starts with clearing your space.

When you look around your workspace, every single piece of paper, unopened envelope, magazine, sticky note, and pile of whatever represents a decision that needs to be made. 

Even 6 beautiful hours of uninterrupted time can be completely derailed by a distracting environment. So – let this be the week that you drop everything and clear your work space of as many distractions as possible.

Then, create a single inbox, in-tray or drop spot in your workspace. Anything that comes in? Pop it in that tray and sort it once a week. 

If your current workspace looks more like a kitchen table than a traditional office, that’s okay, too. Do your best to position yourself with your back to distractions like dishes in the sink, the TV begging you to turn on Netflix or the laundry basket on the sofa. 

And – just like a sweep of your workspace can clear potential physical distractions, a sweep of your notifications can clear potential digital distractions. 

The average person is hit with a distraction every 40 seconds when working in front of their computer. And it takes an average of 29 minutes to regain deep focus every time you’re interrupted So even if you’re working in a pristine workspace, you’re not out of the woods yet.

I encourage you to open up the notifications section within the settings on your smartphone and do a quick notifications audit. If you have an iPhone, you can find this inside Settings, and then Notifications. 

For example – I don’t receive an alert for text messages, as in – nothing pops up on my screen. However, I did keep the red dot that appears in the corner of the app to let me know that there’s something inside waiting for me. 

Another example – I don’t allow notifications of any kind for email. No red dot, no pop up on my screen, nothing. 

My personal tech philosophy is that text messages and email don’t require an immediate response, so I don’t require an immediate notification of its existence. Turning off notifications gives me the peace of mind to wait until ready to be intentional with my response. 

The one disclaimer I’ll make is that this method of clearing digital distractions won’t be a good fit for everyone. If your boss’s expectation is that you respond to email or text messages immediately – then you’ll want to at least keep your notifications running for that boss.

Back when I worked in a Communications Director role at a State Agency, my boss explicitly required that I respond to any email within 5 minutes – even if that response was a simple, Ok. Got it. I was on my toes all the time – and I figured out how to set up a special alert whenever something came through from that boss. 

Just like I tell the women inside Take Back Your Life, my small group coaching program – every strategy will not be a good fit for every person – you have to know what will work best for you. And if you’re not able to turn off your notifications because of specific circumstances – then leave them on. But if you do have some wiggle room and some freedom to turn them off and set boundaries for digital interruptions – do what you can. It will be so worth it.

Remember – your smartphone, computer, tablet and other devices exist for YOUR convenience, NOT the convenience of everyone who wants to interrupt you throughout the day.

Keep a Shiny Things List 

Once you’ve gotten your physical and digital distractions under control, keeping a Shiny Things List is a great strategy for corralling mental distractions.

How many times have you sat down to focus on some important Deep Work, but all of a sudden tons of things pop into your mind that need to be done. Having a notebook or a notepad by your side when you start your focus time is your distraction catcher, or parking lot so you can jot down the shiny thing and get back to work. 

Remember that you need to add toilet paper to your shopping list? Put it on the shiny things list. Realized that you need to update a report with something you uncovered during your focused work? Put it on the shiny things list. Anything that pops into your head that isn’t directly related to your focused work goes on the shiny things list.

Then – once you reach the end point of your focus time, move the stuff on your shiny things list to your to-do list, delegate what needs to be delegated or schedule time to tackle it later. 

Use the Pomodoro Method

The fifth strategy for super focus is using the Pomodoro Method.

The Pomodoro method uses a timer to break up your focused work into intervals, typically 25 minutes of work, with 5 minutes of taking a break.  Using the Pomodoro method is ideal for working your way through complex, Deep Work across a few hours. After four rounds of 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off – aka a Pomodoro, take a longer break. 

The beauty of the Pomodoro method is that as you set your timer, you know you have a break coming after 25 minutes. There’s an end in sight, and you can set mini goals for each of your 25 minutes of work. During the 5 minute break, you get to rest your eyes, stretch your legs, revisit the bigger picture of your work and step back into your next 25 minute session feeling energized and ready to rock and roll. 

Alright! So let’s recap.

Multitasking is a Lie. You’re not good at it. No one is. 

What you think of as multitasking is actually context switching, and your brain LOVES it because moving on to something new and different gives your brain a hit of dopamine – so we feel productive and keep doing it – even though we’re actually wasting 80% of our productive time with all the switching. What a waste, right?

But – once you cut the word multitasking from your vocabulary, and call it what it is – context switching – you can bring more awareness and recognize when you’re in switching mode, so you can rein yourself in and bring your focus back to the most important thing.

Thinking of your work as Deep Work and Shallow Work, setting expectations, clearing your environment – physical and digital, keeping a Shiny Things List, and using the Pomodoro Method are 5 awesome strategies that you can use individually, or all together for super focused, non-multitasked work sessions.

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