As of this moment, I have the radio playing in the background, two different customer files and an Excel file open on my computer, and a personality file open on my desk. Most people would call that multi-tasking. Many would be tempted to call that a pretty good talent to have. The majority of us practice this in one way or another, willingly or unwillingly. So the real question becomes: is multi-tasking a good thing? A lot of credible research reports conclude it probably isn’t good for our brains to multi-task, and it likely contributes to poor performance in several different areas. If the research is true, why do we keep striving to become better multi-taskers? Should we? There’s power in powering down.
I think of us as living in the “electronics age” since so many people seem eternally connected to their devices. With phones, tablets, computers, watches and constant new app development aggressively vying for our attention, there is little room to disconnect in our lives. I saw a person driving yesterday with a headset on, having an animated conversation with someone…all while looking at the tablet they had perched on top of their steering wheel. We are so connected to simultaneous things, but research supports that our brains do not function best when multi-tasking. So, what do we do?
Here are some thoughts about how to recalibrate:
All around us people are checking emails, texting and talking. Segment your time into defined chunks you will allow yourself to look at your phone or tablet. Check emails only at the top of even numbered hours. I know you think messages may be “urgent,” but we existed quite well before email. If we choose to not let the sense of “urgency” overtake our productivity, we would find that timed periods to check email may allow us to actually respond to more.
Pick a time that works for you and begin to limit the time the “machine” will enslave you. I know this is hard because of my observation of college students as they leave class. They don’t even allow themselves to hit the door to the outside of the building before ripping out their phones to text, check, and connect. Similarly, pay attention to how many families have their phones out at restaurants to be “plugged in.” Unplug for a spell. It really might change your life.
Patterns have a way of being hard to break. If you are going to try to stop multi-tasking, you have to break from the patterns you default to following. Instead of booting up your computer first thing in the morning, try getting out a sheet of paper and writing down the hardest task you have to get done that day. Give it 20-30 minutes of undivided attention before “plugging in” to your devices. Interrupt your patterns at the lunch or dinner table, and declare it a smartphone free zone for the first 30 minutes. Have some go-to discussion questions to get everyone at the table engaged. Thirty minutes may stretch to a longer period of time once people allow themselves to actively communicate face-to-face.
At the end of the day, power off your computer and make a handwritten list of the all the things you worked on. Ask yourself if there was something you started to do that was hijacked by distractions. Plan to work on that first thing the next day.
As we head into this holiday weekend, please try kicking your multi-tasking tendencies to the side for a bit. Commit to unplugging and engaging in the people and world around you, just to see what happens. Who knows? You might actually decide to carry the challenge into your work life!
Written by: Doug Turner, Former Milestone Leadership Facilitator