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How to be more productive while doing less

Dysfunction 43: Multi-tasking

Just in case there is any doubt in your mind let’s make this crystal clear.

Multi-tasking is impossible.

We can only ever single task.

I’m talking about your attention. Have I got it? Are you sure?


Thinking that doing multiple things at once = productivity is totally dysfunctional.

Forget being able to walk and talk, being able to juggle whilst whistling, eating your lunch at your desk whilst on a conference call or being able to take a shit whilst playing angry birds. These are physical acts that can be combined due to muscle memory, habits formed over many years and yes I guess these could classified as multitasking.

But I’m talking about your brain. The most important muscle of all. (Yes guys, even more important than THAT muscle).

You brain is what drives us to do what we do. It’s a truly amazing thing. It’s what allows you to focus, but at any single moment in time it is only ever focused on one thing. It can only ever be focused on one thing.

If you have headphones on right now you’re brain can’t be actively listening to the song and reading these words and processing them both at the same time.

When someone on a conference call does not respond to a question and 3 seconds later says ‘oh sorry I was multitasking’ what they mean is ‘I was single tasking, on something else. So I was not paying attention to you.’

If you are in a meeting and you start checking your phone for emails – guess what? You are single tasking, and not on the meeting you are in. Dysfunctional? Much?

If you are in the middle of typing an email but an instant message pops up on the screen you can only pay attention to 1 of them. Often the instant message may draw you in but I find that if I switch my attention to that, then 30 minutes later after starting other tasks I remember I still didn’t finish that email from earlier.

Some people are very good at switching their attention between several tasks very quickly, sometimes within milliseconds but at any given moment in time they are focused on one thing.

And is it actually a good thing to flit from one unfinished task to another?

If you have lunch at your desk whilst on a conference call and you are engaged and focused on the call, you eat, but you are not paying attention to the taste, smell, texture of the food. Before you know it, the box is empty and you can’t even remember consuming it.

If there are multiple things pulling your attention, it may feel like you are energized and making things happen because you’ve got so much going on at once. Alternatively it may make you feel uncomfortable and like you are loosing some control as you get confused when trying to do several things at once.

STOP! This is nonsense.

Not how it makes you feel, but that you’ve put yourself there in the first place.

Overall it will take longer to complete multiple tasks in this illogical, chaotic way, than if you dealt with them each in turn, one at a time, making a deliberate effort to finish one before starting the next.

I never heard of anyone experiencing a state of flow when trying to do several things at once. Have you?

Although it feel’s like reverse logic, by deliberately trying to do less in any given moment, you can get more done over the course of a day.

Carry these thoughts with you to the office today.

Be aware of it and use it drive your choices.

If you want to encourage yourself to avoid distractions, really be productive and tap into the fact your brain can only focus on a single task at a time then set up your environment to support it.

  1. Turn off outlook for a couple of hours

  2. If someone interrupts you whilst you’re in the middle of typing an email, politely ask them to wait until you’ve finished and clicked send

  3. Shut your instant message system down for part of the day

  4. Take breaks often

  5. If you are on a conference call, lock your PC and for Christ’s sake leave your mobile alone

If something requires you to apply your mind to it, then do just that.

After all it can only ever be single tasking.

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