How to Stop Multitasking and Start FocusingBy Mike Elgan | Posted 2017-03-02 Print
Multitasking is a myth. The key to personal productivity is to do things one at a time with laser-like focus.
Create Distraction-Free Blocks of Time
Another powerful trick is to carve out chunks of your day where you do certain kinds of tasks. For example, I reserve five hours every day for distraction-free writing (from noon to 5 p.m.). As a reminder, I use a Chrome browser plug-in called DistractOff, which enables you to set times of the day when you choose in advance to not visit distracting sites.
If you do try to visit one of the sites on your list, DistractOff asks, "Shouldn't you be working?" and gives you the option to either close the site or visit it anyway. It doesn't lock you out. It's just a speed bump, a reminder to stay focused. And you can set it to work automatically on a schedule, so you won't forget to use it.
Also try to limit your face-to-face interactions to once a day. Schedule "office hours" like a professor and try to cluster meetings during those times.
Every office has at least one employee who prefers to grab you as you're walking by for an informal conversation, rather than sending emails or scheduling time for a meeting. These people are saving themselves time by wasting yours. They're interrupting you. They're catching you "off the record," so there's no accountability for the conversation. And you're not in a position to take notes or check your calendar.
Never accept these conversations. Always ask them to leave you a voicemail, send you an email or schedule a meeting.
You've probably read articles about how successful people tend to get up early. I think the reason is that early morning is the time of day with the least distractions. You're less likely to get calls and other interruptions, and less likely to have meetings. Plus, you're probably more alert in the morning.
Getting up super early and devoting those first few distraction-free hours to your most important work is a great way to accomplish things.
Another good tip is to limit the frequency of distractions. Manage your email, check into social media and return calls only once a day.
There are synchronous and asynchronous media, and that depends on choice. For example, voicemail phone tag makes phones asynchronous. Answering email the second it arrives makes it synchronous.
It's good practice to choose only one synchronous medium—say, texting or Slack—and make all the others asynchronous media that you check only once a day. This includes your phone because answering your phone when it rings can be a huge waste of time. It can be faster for both parties to leave voicemail.
Tame a Wandering or Distracted Mind
Multitasking is not about what you're doing. It's about what you're thinking. That's why it's such a subtle problem. It's hard to tame a wandering or distracted mind. But there are tools that help.
Noise-canceling headphones are great, but it can be distracting to be totally cut off from environmental noise. That's why I use an iPhone app called Hear, which takes whatever sound is happening in your environment and turns it into white noise. You can customize it, too.
You've probably heard that the ideal audio environment for concentration is a semi-crowded cafe where there are a dozen or more people talking in the background. But if you're in a place where, say, two people are talking—or even worse, one person is talking on the phone—that's a recipe for distraction. By using a coffeehouse-noise generating site or app, such as Coffitivity, you can turn those distracting conversations into the right kind of background noise.
These tips are my own strategies for avoiding distractions and the lure of the multitasking myth.
The important thing is to recognize that multitasking is really task-switching, a delusion that wastes your time and energy. It's better to focus on whatever you're doing all the way. Finish one task before stating another one, and do whatever you can to block a world that wants to distract you.
Multitasking is a myth. Focusing on each task completely is a great way to do more and better work in less time. And that's not a myth.
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