Continuing the thread on switching off from a virtual life so I can tune in to the real one…
Yesterday, I touched on the fact that human beings are actually lousier at multi-tasking than we think.
When I was writing “The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt – How You Lead,” I asked for examples of body language that sent negative messages. Here’s an email I received from an office worker in an insurance company: My boss drives us crazy with her mixed messages. She says things like, “You are always welcome in my office” and “You are all an important part of the team.” At the same time, her nonverbal communication is constantly showing how unimportant we are to her. She never makes eye contact, will shuffle papers when others talk, writes email while we answer her questions and generally does not give her full attention. In fact, we don’t even rate her half attention! Then she wonders why her staff doesn’t seek her out.
What you call multitasking is really task-switching, says Guy Winch, PhD, author of Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries. “When it comes to attention and productivity, our brains have a finite amount,” he says.
Contrary to popular belief, multitasking doesn’t save time. In fact, it will probably take you longer to finish two projects when you’re jumping back and forth than it would to finish each one separately… “What tends to save the most time is to do things in batches,” says Winch. “Pay your bills all at once, then send your emails all at once. Each task requires a specific mindset, and once you get in a groove you should stay there and finish.”
Experts estimate that switching between tasks can cause a 40% loss in productivity. It can also cause you to introduce errors into whatever you’re working on, especially if one or more of your activities involves a lot of critical thinking.
At the last World Economic Forum, Yahoo! (YHOO) CEO Marissa Mayer shared that she checks her smartphone more than 150 times a day. It was a proud admission that feeds the myth that multitasking is the new modus operandi for smart, connected leaders. In fact, research has shown we work better when we concentrate on one thing at a time.
The myth persists, however, that multitasking is the best way to work. Peruse any job website and you’ll find literally thousands of descriptions making it clear that those who can’t handle “multitasking” need not apply.
Actually, that Forbes anecdote hits me the hardest, because it’s the mirror to my face. How many times have I tried to “spend time with Arddun” while doing the housework? How many co-painting projects have been secretly supplanted by a quick flick through Facebook? I went to visit my colleagues at my old corporate stomping ground a couple months ago, and another part-timer and I commiserated about how We Are THAT Mother. The one checking her work emails on her phone while her daughter is yelling, “Look at me, Mummy!” as she tries out the same toddler stunt for the 276th time — climbing UP the slide.
(On a side point, why is it that we feel like we’re “getting the day off work” when we’re home parenting our children? It’s the only reason I was driven to check in on my corporate projects while with Arddun. The truth of the matter was that my days home with Arddun were also my “work” days. I have a duty to be fully present at ALL my workplaces… even if the workplace also happens to be home and I’m teaching my daughter how to spell her name with toothpicks.)
Of course, being present – which I personally define as giving my All in the moment – isn’t just about stepping away from the gadgets. The bigger narration is about the lack of focus and discipline – especially when the unexpected crops up. “Firefighting”, we sagely called it when I was a pencil-skirted, killer-heeled corporate mover with a much smaller waistline. Yet I’m finding more and more that the principles of effective time management in the office need to be applied in my home life just as diligently, if I want to bring back focus and discipline in my home life.
So here’s what I’ve been trying out.
- Tuning into technology more deliberately
Still a work in progress, and which I’ve already touched on in my previous post.
- Micro-managing my lists
I am a HUGE list maker. I am almost at Wikipedia proportions, where I need a list of my lists. But the problem with having many lists (with all tasks ordered by level of importance, of course) is deciding which tasks fit in what Stephen Covey refers to as First Things First. Which is a lot easier said and done, because deciding what should come first goes right to the heart of what you are trying to achieve first for your life… then your year… then your month… then your week… and then your day. Remember making those New Year Resolutions? Not as useless an exercise as I thought. And yet at the same time, I want to be flexible enough to go where God takes me. (This year, He took me through pregnancy and a return to the corporate world – both wished for but still surprising!) I’m currently reading Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy – a wonderfully concise book that manages to summarise and consolidate many time-honoured time management systems.
- Micro-managing my day
Closely related to the point above about micro-managing my lists, I dedicate a chunk of time in my mornings to sit and plan ahead. If I’m REALLY organised enough, I even micro-plan my day the night before. The process itself is still messy fun, so it roughly goes as follows:
- First, I pull out a list (hah!) of tasks I want/need to accomplish that day. It goes right down to the everyday things like “Give Arddun a shower” and “Clear the dishrack”. They are all tasks, not goals – each can be accomplished in a single dedicated session. Granularity, my friend.
- Then I figure out my Top Three Priorities for the day. They are still tasks, but they have to be tied to my medium and long-term goals.
- Then I work out the importance and urgency of all my tasks. To do that, I’ve lately fallen back on Eisenhower’s Decision Matrix, and I’ve started punching my tasks in an Android app called Tudle.do. There are far more complex apps out there that align much more closely with Eisenhower’s Decision Matrix… but I love Tudle’s simplicity. The website’s in Polish, but the app is largely in English. This exercise can be painful, but it’s SUCH a great feedback mechanism because it immediately tells me where I’ve been using up large resources of my time. And most of the time, I tend to tackle the mundane because they’re quick and rote… but they also tend to be urgent-not important, or worse – not urgent, not important
- And then I write a schedule to fit in all of those tasks in my day. This is where the rubber meets the road. This is the essence of time management – understanding how long each task takes, and finding time for it. It completely distills your list, and I always end up trimming non-essential tasks by the end of this process. I also build in time to rest and take stock of the day – so it’s a lot less tempting to get distracted with technology because I have already promised myself a break. And I leave buffers everywhere to handle the unexpected, so I can still catch up later. If I have time, I type in my schedule in my iPad app, Schedule Planner HD and then sync it to my calendar as well so I have it on my Android phone. The beauty of that app is that it enables me to log the ACTUAL time the task took place… so I can glean a better understanding for future time allocation of my tasks. The crap part about that app is that data doesn’t sync between the Android and iPad versions of the app. Schtoopid, I know.
Exhausting? Not really. I’ve gotten this process down to half an hour and it’s well worth it. I don’t get to do it every day – there are some days I struggle out of bed, or rush off to an appointment. But I have noticed that when I don’t plan my days well, I default to non-essential but urgent tasks. Those are the days when Tony comes home from work and when he asks what we’ve been up to, I frankly can’t remember what I’ve accomplished.
Micro-managing my daily schedule also has the added bonus of forcing me to do one thing at a time. Okay, maybe TWO things at a time. Which is the limit of what we beautiful, pitiful human beings can handle anyway, according to the French.