From about 1995 through to about 2007 work culture seemed obsessed with the idea of Multitasking. With Internet-ready computers capable of running many programs at once suddenly entering into use in every part of the business world, bosses were imagining a brave new world where office workers could make phone calls, prepare presentations, schedule meetings, answer email, and actually produce whatever they were supposed to be producing all at once. Everyone was talking about how great they are at multitasking on their resumes. Companies were putting “Must be good at multitasking” on every job advertisement online.
But it turns out that multitasking is actually a great way to be shitty at a lot of things at once. Slowly. People are terrible at doing more than one thing at a time. When we switch from one task to another we take around six seconds to remember what it was we were doing in the first place. When we are switching between several tasks, this gap becomes longer and longer. And what qualifies as a “task” can be pretty simple. Figuring out why your computer just beeped at you is a task that will consume half a minute or more: a few seconds to stop what you are doing, six seconds to sort out in your head that you want to figure out what that noise was, three more to move your mouse down to your system tray, ten or so to look at the notification, figure out whether it is important, and then dismiss it, then another three or four to open your old window, and six seconds to remember what the hell you were doing.
Just to make things even more complicated, human beings are terrible at prioritizing productive work when there is communicating to be done. Human beings get a hit of serotonin – the neurotransmitter that makes us feel like we belong and have a place and purpose – every time we have a positive communication with another human being. And we get a hit of dopamine – the neurotransmitter that tells us “What you did was really good for you, you should do it again.A lot.” – every time we complete a task. Even a trivial one. Which means every time we answer an email, read an instant message, or get a comment on social media, we get a double-rush of feel-good drugs in our brain. Which means that the average person is primed by millions of years of evolution to drop everything they are doing every time an email, text, or IM crosses their screen. Real work can’t compete.
The end result is that anyone who tries to do a significant amount of multitasking instead ends up spending the majority of their time staring blankly at the screen, in much the same mental state as someone who has just forgot why they walked into the kitchen.
If you want to actually get things accomplished, Multitasking is the last thing that you want to do. The real trick to productivity is focus. If you can work on one task to the exclusion of all others for just an hour at a time, you will get more done than most people do in a whole day.
Whenever I work with someone who wants to improve their job performance, get a promotion, or run a business, one of the first things I do is to work with them on how well they focus.
Focus is hardly a superhuman ability, but it is a bit of a dying art. We don’t teach most people how to really do just one thing at a time. It is often a tool that we seem to reserve for professional athletes and people doing exceptionally dangerous jobs, even though everyone can benefit from it and it is easy to learn to do.
When I am teaching someone to focus at work I usually start with these tips:
Spend your first half hour of every day planning ahead.
Check your Email only three times per day: after your first half-hour at work, a few minutes before Lunch, and a half an hour before the end of the day. If something is really important, people won’t use email to tell you about it. [pro tip: turn off the sound and pop-up notifications that usually go off when you write an email.]
Have only one method of contacting you that you will respond to immediately. Make sure it is not by telephone call, a social media messenger, or email. I like having a messaging program like Skype or Slack for this purpose, because it is far less likely people will contact me by accident or for non-work related purposes.
Mute your phone. Contrary to the feeling in your gut, phone calls do not need to be answered immediately. You can check to see if you have phone messages at the end of each one-hour period when you are doing things that are actually important.
Cut out as much Social Media from your life as possible. Social Media is addictive, we get rewarded for paying attention to it. If you are using a lot of Social Media, you are going to have to constantly fight the urge to check your notifications. And it will work hard to steal your attention.
Set definite start and stop times for meetings whenever possible.
Use your Lunch break to refresh yourself mentally, not to get your media fix. This is an hour to feed your body and your mind: take it. Go for a walk, listen to music, meditate, or do something creative like drawing. Do not let work intrude on your Lunch hour: it only promotes fatigue and disorganization.
Clean and organize your desk between periods of focus. Clutter and visual distractions can draw your attention away from what you are doing, and “looking for my pen” is one of those distractions that can absorb stunning amounts of time.
At first it can be extremely helpful to use something like a timing app or an hourglass. When you must break from attention pause it (or put it on its side) and deal with whatever has come up.
Once you develop good habits related to focus, you can get the hang of tuning out other little distractions fairly quickly.
Ultimately, I recommend learning a skill that hones focus, such as martial arts, archery, meditation, or yoga. You will find that the mental skills you learn from these disciplines is readily transferable to your work. In time, you will discover that you can simply tune out most distractions and get a great deal done in a short window of time.
I write most of my articles in an indoor playground, surrounded by wild, screaming children, with sky trekking overhead, and loud rock music constantly going. Because I have both developed good focus habits while working, and honed my mental focus through archery, fencing, tae kwon do, and meditation, I can work for a couple of uninterrupted hours no matter what the volume or level of chaos.
Which is pretty much necessary for any parent working from home.