If you want to create, stop multitasking and start single-tasking. (In other words, focus, dammit.)
I admit it. I am a single-tasker. Not necessarily by choice, just by sheer natural limitation. Hand on heart, I can only focus on one – maybe two – things at a time. When I am reading, I literally cannot hear you if you speak. I know, deep and surely to the depths of my soul, that I cannot drive safely and talk on my phone at the same time. If the TV is on, you can be certain that I am not listening to what you say even if I pretend otherwise.
This often makes me feel like an atheist at a baptism. Friends are evangelical task jugglers bragging about how many plates they have in the air. Job interviewers ask if you’re a strong multi-tasker. (A good – and true – response to that is “I know how to manage interruptions.” No need to mention that your chief tool in that endeavour is the stink-eye followed closely by blocks of judicious call screening.) Dates take cell phone calls while at dinner (but do not get dessert).
The Downside of Multi-tasking
An article in the NY Times by writer Steve Lohr says that I am not in fact deficient. Instead, I’m realistic. Lohr writes that according to neuroscientist René Marois, a “core limitation” of our brain is an inability to concentrate on two things at once”.
Lohr goes on to write that
“In a recent study, a group of Microsoft workers took, on average, 15 minutes to return to serious mental tasks, like writing reports or computer code, after responding to incoming e-mail or instant messages. They strayed off to reply to other messages or browse news, sports or entertainment Web sites.”
Well, I am no neuroscientist but that does not sound very productive, does it?
It is not.
Multitasking fragments our attention and stalls the momentum necessary for deep thinking. We’re not doing more with less; we’re doing more and achieving less – and, as evidenced by our jam-packed schedules and work hour ‘creep’, we’re taking longer to do it.
Madness. Multitasking madness, I tell you.
All right kids. The experts say multitasking is bollocks. I am not deficient because I cannot multitask effectively. Thinking that multitasking will help us do ‘more’ and do it better is the problem. So eff multi-tasking. If you want results, focus and flow.
When I talk about ‘flow’, I’m not talking about some mystical force that sweeps you up and inspires you to dance naked in a field of daisies (feel free to do that if you like, and send me the photos). Flow is not a trance. Well, okay, it is, but not in the peyote-enhanced sense of the word.
Flow, to me, is right brain thinking. I learned about right-brain thinking years ago when I was learning to draw, but the theory explains so much more than just “Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain”.
The website for the book quotes neurosurgeon Richard Bergland, who says that,
“You have two brains: a left and a right. Modern brain scientists now know that your left brain is your verbal and rational brain; it thinks serially and reduces its thoughts to numbers, letters and words… Your right brain is your nonverbal and intuitive brain; it thinks in patterns, or pictures, composed of ‘whole things,’ and does not comprehend reductions, either numbers, letters, or words.”
The fact that your right brain does not use numbers, letters, or words means that when deep in thought, being called back to the left side of your brain is literally a jarring experience. Your brain has to switch gears.
In my experience, the right brain also does not experience time in a linear way. When I am immersed in a right-brain activity, I lose all sense of time. The only thing at hand is the pleasure and joyous work of creating. Being interrupted and called back to reality – back to the linear, rational left brain – is a jarring, and irritable experience, and it takes time for my inflamed and now ornery brain to switch gears. The immediate momentum I had for the creative process is lost. The flame goes out.
And this, dear reader is why we must immediately rise up and overthrow the hegemony of multitasking. Just as our brethren at Microsoft take an average of fifteen minutes to get back to ‘serious mental tasks’ (umm, like effective security? Just asking), you and I lose our momentum and intensity of focus when we try to do many things at once instead of one or two things well.
Give Yourself Time
If you want to create, give yourself to time to focus and flow.
I realize that for many of us, this is not a highly practical solution. There are kids to shoo off the back of the sofa, dogs to walk, demanding jobs and relationships, gyms and telemarketers to avoid, facebook addictions to feed, twitters to tweet, and just not enough time in the day.
But I swear to you, up, down, and sideways, that multi-tasking is the culprit stealing our time. Focusing on one thing at a time and getting into flow will actually increase the intensity of your focus and allow you to accomplish more in less time.
I use the alternating weekends when my children are with their father to be creative. Or after they go to bed — which is a pale second choice, however. The end of the day is the worst time to tap into the will power to jump-start my evening creative flow. I am still living a life that requires a degree of muscling through, so my will power reserves are depleted long before bedtime (hell, by lunchtime! Often even before breakfast!).
For example, when I decided – really decided – to launch this blog, I chose a Saturday when the children were not at home, when I had no commitments and no distractions. I took care of all my pesky Saturday tasks (shopping, cleaning, errands) first thing in the morning, and then sat down to make the magic happen (ahem).
While high on will power, I also took on and completed all the tasks that I do not like and would usually find a way to avoid or delay. Figuring out domains and software and hosting and all the mundane infrastructure of blogging is not what gets me all a-tingle. Case in point: my microwave clock is still blinking 00:00. Only steroid-enhanced will power or an act of God will make that change.
But once my boring infrastructure was in place, and my kids and distractions contained, I wrote. And wrote. And wrote.
When my energy waned, I ate an orange (‘cuz I learned that when I was researching how to sustain will power) and turned my attention to researching points that needed flesh. Then, when that flash of citrus-powered glucose re-ignited my brain, I wrote some more.
When I was ‘done’, I had a functioning website, five complete posts, as well as outlines, research, notes and titles for several more pieces. Go, right brain, go!
Give Yourself Tools that Work
In the process of starting this blog, I did two things right: I carved out uninterrupted time to single-task, and I rode the wave of will power (hard).
I harnessed the power of will power to build myself a delivery system that will keep churning even once the fuel runs out. In other words, I planned and wrote ahead.
For example, my goal is to publish five entries per week. Knowing that I will do this while juggling all of my regular responsibilities – working a fulltime job, mothering two small girls and keeping up on my social networking habit – and that will power inevitably abandons me in a day or two, I took my own advice.
Realizing – and accepting – that on Thursday night I might not feel like writing, or that inspiration would take a holiday and I would have nothing to write about, I wrote several ‘extra’ posts. I manufactured a little inventory, if you will.
Now, I feel confident that I can achieve my goal (five posts), am less anxious about failing which in turns frees my mind to focus on achieving. I avoid the self-flagellation that comes with not meeting my goals – and there is nothing that stalls action and accomplishment as effectively as self-abuse. In addition, now everything I write this week is gravy. Not only am I meeting my goal, but I am exceeding it. Kill me now. It does not get better than this.
This brings us to the next observation. The exaltation of accomplishment rolls in just as will power rolls out.
Like will power, accomplishment is a fuel. Time your plans so that just as will power is running out, accomplishment kicks in. And the amazing thing is this: accomplishment generates more will power.
If you use will power and accomplishment as fuel, and assemble the right tools for the job – including single-tasking – you will be able to accomplish your objectives with greater ease, and faster, than if you drag your ass through life enslaved to the demands of to-do list.
What are these tools? When you set out to make a change, or achieve a goal, or create something of value, your tool box looks like this:
- Will Power (fuel)
- Right brain thinking
- Accomplishment (fuel)
In essence, I achieved a simple goal this week by assembling and using the right tools. You can do the same.
The Get ‘Er Done Methodology
Here’s the thing: it’s not really about muscling through, at all. To make stuff, you’ve simply got to engineer your environment (I call this “building a boring system”) and set yourself up to get into flow.
Once you’ve got your system set up and your tools and know how to use them, here’s what you do:
- Single-task. Focus. No interruptions. Give yourself time to tap into your right brain.
- Accept and accomodate reality. Acknowledge your constraints and the solutions up-front. No magical thinking around reality.
- Harness will power (initially). Use the fuel of will power to build and kick-start a self-perpetuating delivery system that both acknowledges your constraints and does an end-run around them to produce your goals.
- Refuel. Time it so that the fuel of accomplishment kicks in just as the fuel of will power is petering out.
- Repeat. Often.
Well, well, well. Lookie here. I set out to write a short and simple post on why multi-tasking is a bad idea, and ended up writing that and a step-by-step plan for achieving goals. Thank you very much, single-tasking right brain. (Have I made my point, darlings?)
In Case You Missed It, Here’s My Point: Multi-tasking is Dumb
We all can do more with less time – but multitasking is not the method, it is madness.
Focus your time and energy on the process of creating, and allow yourself to do that uninterrupted. Your productivity, and your pleasure in producing, will increase exponentially. I had an amazing time this week creating this blog and growing as a human and I want that for you, too. Let’s be better people together.
And if you do make it out to that meadow…I’m still waiting for the pictures.