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multitasking

The Art and Science of Being Present

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.

Forbes touched on how it hurts relationships:

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 companyMy 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.

Health.com clarifies what works better:

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.

And Bloomberg highlighted the difficulty of opting out in today’s world:

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.

  1. Tuning into technology more deliberately
    Still a work in progress, and which I’ve already touched on in my previous post.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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Facebook Free

For the past three Fridays, I’ve been trying to be Facebook-Free. (If you haven’t already figured it out, I like my alliterations.)

Yesterday marked the first time I’d been successful. (I had set WordPress up to automatically post to Facebook on my behalf, so that wasn’t me checking in.) All this effort only serves to highlight how sadly addicted I’ve become to social media. And as it turns out, I’m not alone. I was reading A Pendulum World yesterday, and she too was working through her habits and actions when it comes to blogging and social media engagement. Her post resonated with enough women to garner 21 responses and counting – all of them bemoaning the fact that they have difficulty switching off.

It’s very much a problem of the age. And before some of us start mounting our high horses about the generations after ours (in my case, Generation Y, Millenials, and iGen), let’s just say that the Corporate world – currently dictated largely by older Gen Xers and those before them – have a lot to answer for, too. We are now expected to be On Tap and fully accessible through the myriad of technologies availed to us. You can now get your emails through your desktop, your tablet AND your mobile, and for the more progressive companies, they’re pushing documents and news through instant chat apps and the like. The influx of information – whether prescribed to or subscribed by us – can be unrelenting.

And then there’s that big lie about multi-tasking, and how women are built for it.

“Contrary to popular belief, human beings cannot multitask. What we are capable of is handling a number of serial tasks in rapid succession, or mixing automatic tasks with those that are not so automatic. That’s one of the reasons that the NTSB reports that texting while driving is the functional equivalent of driving with a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit. You just can’t effectively attend to two things at once – even the superficially automatic ones.” ~ From Psychology Today

“It’s a common belief that women are better at multi-tasking than men. After all, productivity studies show that women continue to do the lion’s share of household and childcare tasks, while also holding down part- or full-time work. So this must mean women are better multi-taskers, right? Not necessarily. For a topic that causes so much heat in the kitchen, there’s surprisingly little scientific evidence to declare a clear winner.” ~ From National Science Week 2011. The study goes on to prove that women look like better multi-taskers, because they are better at planning and strategy.

I speak purely for myself when I say my Facebooking is compulsive. If I have a free moment with the gadgets, that’s the place I’ll go. I may not be the type of Facebooker to post a pic of every meal I’ve had, repost every news article I’ve come across, or give a blow-by-blow of my hourly movements (unless I am pathetically trying to do A Photo An Hour). But if I posted a series of photos, you’ll be sure I’ll be checking in to see how the numbers are climbing. And don’t get me started on blog posts. Every blogger I’ve met not-so-secretly watches their stats climb after they publish a post. And that is something I have come to actively repress because of how narcissistic it is.

The scariest thing of all is that it’s become a reflex – I don’t know I’m doing it, until I’m already there. That’s when I knew I had a problem.

The biggest losers in all of this, of course, are the relations in my life. Specifically, the daughter I deliberately stayed home most days of the week to blog about. The Art of Being Present has started to elude me. And yet, I watch Arddun and all she does is live in the present. No casting back on the past, no organising about the future. Yet somehow, as we grow older, we take on this odd paradigm that thinking ahead is sagacious and living in the Now is indulgent.

There are a few posts meshed in this untidy one – multi-tasking, living in the present, turning things off – so I’ll try and focus just on the one for tonight.

Here’s a few things I’ve been trying out lately to discipline my social media-checking compulsion.

  1. Getting Alarmed
    I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned my FitBit One, but I went and got a nice maroon one from ebay early this year, and it has evolved into my Life Reminder – mostly because I can program several alarms on it and it vibrates against my body discreetly. My three main FitBit alarms are for waking up, for reminding me to sleep, and for my 3pm cup of tea – which is the permission I give myself to check personal emails and Facebook. This worked out great for about a month, until I stopped wearing it from the middle of my second trimester due to the lack of pockets in maternity wear. You read that right.
  2. Finding a replacement
    I think part of the reason I click on Facebook is the unthinking need to connect to someone, or to feed the mind. And so I’m starting to pick up my mobile and call others for a chat if I have a block of time. Or sit and plan for the next day with paper and pen. Or write an actual letter, stamps and everything. Or read an ebook borrowed from the library. Or write a summary of my day in a journal. All this takes conscientious effort and self-awareness. And it’s about unlearning an old habit, at the end of the day. I can still be in the middle of checking Facebook before realising I had defaulted to that without thinking. But at least the self-awareness is growing.
  3. Going cold turkey one day a week
    So like I said in the beginning of this post, Friday is supposed to be my Facebook-Free day. And yesterday was the first time I succeeded. Some of the things that helped – planning in advance. Resolving the night before that Friday was Facebook Free. Coming up with the alliteration in the first place, so I’d remember. And then moving/hiding the app icon, so that muscle memory wouldn’t kick in. I tried not to binge today after a day of Facebook fasting, so building in new rules for regular days of the week have been crucial for me. I get to check Facebook in the mornings, before I’m out of bed. I’m still sticking to my 3pm as far as possible — even without my FitBit One — and then after dinner to unwind.

Why am I even wanting to do this? Because Being Present with Arddun is my greatest gift to her at this stage. Quality time IS Quantity time. The two are intertwined. And while Being Present isn’t just about not Facebooking (I have many other distractions like housework), it is at least a good start.

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