In a previous blog I talked about the research that shows that multi-tasking is not effective. (See 100 Things You Should Know About People: #7 — People Can’t Multi-Task) So if multi-tasking is not effective what should you do? How do you effectively cope with all the input and distractions you have in your life, especially at work?
1: Remember the 80/20 rule — I’m sure you’ve heard about the 80/20 rule. The context here is that 20% of the work you do gives 80% of the impact and effectiveness. We often make the mistake of thinking that being busy means being effective. And the busier we get the more multi-tasking we end up doing. According to the research that means we are getting less effective the “busier” we get. Focus on identifying the 20% of your tasks that are really effective.
2: Implement “batch processing” — Do you sit at your desk with your email open and then get sucked into reading and answering emails all day long every time they come in? This encourages multi-tasking. Instead, try batch processing your emails. Decide on certain times of the day (in the morning, at noon, in the late afternoon, for example) that you are going to check and deal with email. Some people (Timothy Ferriss, for example, author of The 4-Hour Workweek) say that you can get really radical with this idea. Ferriss advocates that you check email once a day or less! If you are like me, that radical an idea is probably not feasible, but experiment with this idea of batch processing. You can use this not only for email, but for anything that is usually a distraction for you, such as making phone calls, checking voicemail, etc. If you do batch processing you can then eliminate that task as a multi-tasking distractor during the other parts of your day.
#3: Work on your most important tasks first — I think one of the reasons that we give in to multi-tasking is that we feel more and more anxious as the day goes on that we have not accomplished what we wanted to, or what was important to us. So identify at the start of each day (or better yet, at the end of the day before) one or two really important things that you want to accomplish during that one day. Then do those tasks first. The sense of relief and accomplishment is immense, and you will find that you are more relaxed as the day goes on. You will not feel the anxious drive to do more and more and more, and it will be easier to resist multi-tasking.
#4: Use concentrated time — The opposite of multi-tasking is concentrated time. So if you are trying to stop multi-tasking you must start doing the opposite — give yourself blocks of time during which you are only working on one task. The idea of setting aside an entire day to work on that presentation you have coming up, may seem like it is impossible right now, but it doesn’t have to be an entire day. Start by taking one hour. Close down your email and all your other software. Turn off your phone or turn down the volume. If it is a cell phone turn it off and put it away. Close the door to your office if you have a door. If you don’t have a door then figure out a place to go where people won’t find you. Then take that hour or 2 hours or half day or full day and work ONLY on the one task. You will be amazed at how much you will accomplish and how energized it makes you feel.
#5: Leave blank spaces — If you read my blog on creativity (See 5 Steps to More Creativity Using Brain Science), then you know that the pre-frontal cortex is a part of your brain that puts ideas together. But it can only work on one thing at a time. When you are multi-tasking you are taxing your pre-frontal cortex. You will never solve problems if your pre-frontal cortex doesn’t get quiet time to work on integrating information. This may sound paradoxical, but if you STOP thinking about a problem or particular topic you will then be able to solve it! This means you have to leave time and make time for blank spaces in your day. You need to have time in your day when you are doing “nothing” as far as your brain is concerned. Not talking, not reading, not writing. You can go for a walk, get exercise, listen to music, or stare into space. The more blank space the more work you will get done! Multi-tasking is the enemy of blank space.
#6: Create a new habit — Research shows that if you want to create a new habit you have to engage in the new behavior every day over and over again. Eventually it will become a habit and you won’t have to think about it. (How long that takes is under debate. It depends on the habit. Another blog on that will come shortly). At first, though you have to consciously work to NOT multi-task. So just realize if you want to stop multi-tasking you will have to work on it diligently until the new way of working becomes a habit.
#7: Accept it — The first step to change any behavior is to accept it! So if you want to stop multi-tasking the first thing you need to do is accept that you are multi-tasking and that multi-tasking is not effective. That might be the hardest step of all. We are actually addicted to the constant buzz of activity that multi-tasking gives us (that will be an upcoming blog as well, about texting and twittering and the dopamine receptors in your brain). So just take a deep breath and accept that you’ve got this habit along with most of the people you know. Just noticing when you are doing it and saying, “oh, there I go again” will actually help tremendously in changing it. Putting your attention on what you want to change is a vital first step.
What do you think? Can you change your multi-tasking habit?