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What’s the most important thing you’re doing right now?

I say! Death to multi tasking!

“Well I’m reading this blog, but I have a presentation due tomorrow, I’m writing a board paper at the moment and I’m thinking about what to have for dinner and I’m keeping a list going in my head of all the things I need to talk to my manager about at my performance review next week plus I’m keeping an eye on Jackie’s whereabouts because I need to speak with her before she leaves at 4pm….”

Does this sort of answer sound familiar? It’s just the way our mind works, processing more thoughts than it needs and certainly more thoughts than it can turn its attention to at ONCE.

So what IS the most important thing you’re doing right now?

The answer is in the question: ‘the thing you’re doing right now’.  While we aren’t saying you got the answer ‘wrong’ – this answer might surprise you – the most important thing you are doing is precisely what you ARE doing right now. 

In a previous life I was a serial multi-tasker.  I actually planned my time around how many things I could do at once – listening to my daughter while doing dishes while dinner was cooking, while watching the news out of the corner of my eye.  Shame.  Sure, it’s satisfying being able to do lots of things all at once—it made me feel productive and efficient, but in reality, I’m sure the quality of what I was doing was compromised. Just ask my daughters!?  (by the way I was often bitten in the bum about this: “But mum I TOLD you about my friends coming over last night and you said yes….”)….  Disaster parenting.

This spiel is about my new distaste for multi-tasking, the very thing I used to think served me in being productive and efficient and effective in my job.  But now, death to multi-tasking, I say! 

What is multitasking? 

Your boss loves YOU doing it, women are supposedly naturals at it, and generally people see it as a quality most of us would love to acquire. Technological devices and resources foster the multitasking myth. Arm yourself with a smartphone and earbuds and we feel we can take on the day’s tasks all at once while we constantly stay connected.  Disaster working.

The definition is unclear as to whether it’s literally doing multiple things at once OR is it task switching where you spend some time doing one thing and then move onto the next despite not finishing the first thing?  Being able to do two or more things at once, bonus!  And many of us do believe that doing a lot of things simultaneously is a positive trait.  But the science has concluded - multitasking isn’t really something to aspire to – it’s bad for our brains and bad for our productivity in the long run.

Listen up to the research.

Research has shown that those who have to do multiple things at once generally feel good about themselves, for a while.  But the results also show that they are not nearly as good as the non-multitaskers.

In addition to research, the neuroscience now backs up the theory that multitasking is not healthy. This is because we are wired to be mono-taskers. Talking on the phone whilst writing an email and attempting to book concert tickets against the clock at the same time shouldn’t be seen as impressive. We’re not wired to do it!

What’s the impact?

Interestingly enough they knew this hundreds of years ago: a 1700s adage claims: “There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once. But there is not enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.” In other words, the more we multitask the less we are able to accomplish, because we slowly lose our ability to focus enough to learn. And attention is essential to learning! 

The concern among neuroscientists studying the workings of the brain is that our tendency to divide our attention, rather than focus, is hampering our ability to perform even simple tasks.

If you aren’t focusing on the one thing you are doing right now, how can you be giving it your full attention, the best you can? If you are being distracted by your thoughts about dinner tonight, how can you be writing that board report with utmost focus and clarity? 

Constantly switching back and forth from task to task, project to project impairs our ability to function at our best, with potentially dangerous consequences.  Trying to complete more than one thing at a time — especially anything potentially dangerous, like texting while driving — seriously threatens our ability to complete the tasks safely and well.

To think these impacts don’t apply to you is an illusion, we are kidding ourselves!

What’s the answer?

When we’re focusing intently on something with no distractions or task switching, the work we do is of a much better quality.

How can you still get through that never ending to do list and be as productive and as efficient as you want to be? 

First recognise that your to do list is never ‘done’.

Rather than try to excel at multi-tasking, why not become a guru in prioritizing? 

Break your time into chunks so you spend 30 minutes on each task/ activity/ item on your “to do” list. Make all the phone calls in the same half hour, have a specific time that you check and reply to emails and use your diary to schedule everything!  

Stay focused on the one thing you have in front of you – whether that be a person to whom you are listening, a report you are writing, a meal you are making, or a list you are creating.  To the exclusion of everything else!

Meditation and mindfulness also teach us that being focused and present on the task at hand is the key to being more productive. Those who are mindful can do more than just pay attention; they deliberately focus on the present moment, the ‘now’. This level of attentiveness can result in stress free decision-making and ultimately a less reactive environment.

Don’t let your mind convince you that you need to spread yourself thin.  We unmistakably perform best one thing at a time. I challenge you to try it, with as much awareness and purposefulness you can muster!  


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