Yesterday was a productive day. For a change, I proceeded through my list of tasks by doing one thing at a time, curious to see the benefits. I stuck to one sticky, if you will… instead of my usual eight or nine.
You know how it goes. The phone buzzes and you need to take it; an urgent email means dropping what you’re working on RIGHT NOW; a co-worker or client has an immediate need and they’re standing over your shoulder; a child interrupts because it’s actually evening and you’re still working.
And on that last item, how many of us allow our work lives to intrude into family life 24/7? Don’t we struggle with saying “stop” and enforcing boundaries?
Is this because we don’t feel secure in our jobs, or has this behavior become (bad) habit?
The Benefits of Doing One Thing at a Time
Yesterday, I worked differently for two reasons. First, I genuinely wanted to explore the benefits of doing one thing at time, which is not my usual MO, and I wanted to know if the results would feel better.
Note that I did not say I was looking to see if the results were better. While I thought that might be the case, I assumed any differences would be negligible. What interested me was how I would feel about my day and at the end of the day. I hoped to feel less tired, less frazzled, and still good about what got done — with a greater likelihood of completing tasks rather than finding I had made progress in many of them, and completed few or none.
After all, isn’t prevailing wisdom at the moment that we are less effective than we think when we multitask? Yet don’t we all multitask all the time — or try? Is this tendency more pronounced when we’re juggling kids and work, or we’ve spent so long doing so it’s our “new normal?”
Or do we feel more important when we’re constantly busy?
Is work overload a cover for “life” avoidance?
Whatever our reasons, it seems like multitasking is part of our 21st century cultural norm, which we no longer question. Except of course for the pop psychology pundits whose articles explain the benefits of doing one thing at a time.
Avoid Multitasking for One Day. Try It.
As for my little experiment, intentionally avoiding my usual multitasking methods, and purposely trying to block out interruptions more than usual, here’s what I found.
- I proceeded through my tasks efficiently.
- I was able to achieve my “flow state” of total (contented, productive) immersion more quickly and for a longer sustained period.
- I brought my day to a close earlier than usual, by almost five hours.
Now that last may have nothing to do with intentionally avoiding the Routine Red Zone. The hours I’ve been keeping have been excessive, which likely explains why I needed a period of not multitasking. My brain knows its tired.
Fourteen hour days, every day of the week?
Eventually, the mind rebels. You cannot effectively multitask — even if you try.
Yesterday? I worked nine hours, focused on completion, and said no to almost every interruption.
The Challenge of Many Masters, Many Tasks
Now this may sound obvious to some, but when your routine involves working on multiple activities (or for multiple people) — you might think of these as mini-projects within a larger set of responsibilities. You may be staring at a list that includes the need to complete a dozen items on varying schedules involving a dozen different people. Issues of priorities and deadlines, especially if they are subject to change, tend to keep you hopping, not to mention hedging your bets by working on many things simultaneously.
I will add that there are times when you get stuck on one task — I find this true when dealing in creative, which I am often doing. By switching tasks, then returning to the one that stumped you hours before, or even by working on related items at the same time, you see interrelationships and options you might not have seen otherwise. You resolve whatever block was looming earlier, or a new approach is sparked by changing things up or moving around among related fragments.
Not only can it feel like a relief, but it spurs progress rather than slowing it.
The Dangers of Multitasking
Still, juggling six or eight (or more) different activities throughout the course of the day? Day after day, week after week?
Not only are you exhausted, though you forge ahead on many items, but you don’t enjoy the satisfaction of completing any one. You may also wind up more focused on outputs rather than outcomes.
And, let’s not forget that there are times when our multitasking habits spill over into activities in ways that are dangerous — driving while texting or talking on the phone, becoming so tired or distracted as to be accident-prone, allowing our most important relationships to be put on hold or even slip away if we don’t start paying attention.
I had accomplished one important item and made progress on several others. Do note — I say “important” item, which doesn’t necessarily mean it appeared as the most pressing. (Remember the discussion of what is urgent versus what is important?)
I admit that not succumbing to my standard MO required discipline to stop myself from reading emails as soon as they came in, and likewise, closing online windows to my many mini-projects in process, so as to concentrate on one at a time. I also realize that some of these habits are well-ingrained, the result of a single mother working-juggling lifestyle that stretched over many years, with few other options.
Experts on the Pros and Cons of One Thing at a Time
Curious to see what the experts have to say on the benefits of doing one thing at a time, here is what I found.
In The Pros and Cons of Doing One Thing at a Time, Harvard Business Review addresses the very challenge that is part of my routine — a multiplicity of tasks with potentially changing deadlines. Note the scenario as they explain it:
… Let’s say six people simultaneously give you six similar three-day, ASAP tasks, and you juggle them, spending a half day on each in turn.
Although you make good progress on each… you don’t complete any of the tasks until Day 16… If you attack the tasks sequentially, you finish the first one in just three days, the second in six, the third in nine, and so on. In fact, you complete five of the six earlier than if you had been working on them in parallel…
Of course, when you are working for multiple people, juggling offers advantages. Furthermore, some activities benefit from being left for a time, or creatively juggled.
When you juggle, your tasks interact with each other, and that can be a good thing. As they compete for your attention, their specific problems come into sharp relief, and new solutions present themselves.
Finding a Balance (That Isn’t Crazy-Making)
- Manage expectations — yours and those of people you work with — recognizing that juggling may mean everything takes longer.
- Do the best you can with schedule and priority changes you don’t control (and don’t blame yourself).
- Don’t forget to build in slack where you can, precisely for what you don’t control.
- Understand that the human relationships are essential; balance them with the timing of completing work.
- Communicate. Letting people know the bigger picture may alleviate some pressure.
- Recognize the pros and cons of different ways to work — laser focus and juggling both have their place.
Overall, yesterday was a good day — productive, less tiring than usual, and allowing myself the “down time” of making soup and enjoying dinner was a bonus I hadn’t anticipated. I need to practice this approach — in every sense of the word — and far more often.
How about you?
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