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How to Multitask – When You Have To
Editor's Note: This is a guest post from Ali Hale of Constructively Productive.
Multitasking. All the rage a couple of years ago; but now it gets a bad rap. (I've written my share of posts against it, too.) I'm starting to think there's a middle ground.
Sure, we can all agree that it's more effective and ultimately more efficient to do one thing at a time, rather than to fracture our attention between several different tasks. Sure, it'd be nice if we could always sit down and complete Task A before moving smoothly to Task B.
Ever noticed that life sometimes isn't very convenient?
Yeah, me too.
Like it or not, many of us need to multitask – and, in some cases, this is actually beneficial. So how do you sort the good multitasking from the bad? How do you make sure you're getting the focused time which you need to get your great work done ... whilst keeping the rest of life ticking along too?
Protect Your Core Work
I wanted to say this up front, because I think it's crucial to effective multitasking. Protect your core work. Carve out serious, concentrated time for your high-energy, meaningful tasks. For me, those are writing-related. If I'm writing a blog post and checking email every five minutes, the post suffers. If I'm writing a chapter of my novel in between sorting out laundry, I can't get into flow.
Figure out your peak hours, and do whatever you can to protect those and to use them for single-mindedly focusing on one key thing.
Combining Mental and Physical
Multitasking is alive and well! Everybody thinks it is counterproductive, but if you do it correctly, it is a super-productivity tool. The trick is to combine a “head” activity with a “body” activity. In other words, a mental with a physical. The problem is that we tend to try to do two mental tasks at the same time, which is counterproductive.
(Robert Pagliarini, quoted in #27 of 36 Secrets the Productivity Gurus Won’t Tell You (But Our Heretics Will) on Constructively Productive) I love this tip, because it gets to the heart of when multitasking makes my life better. If I'm doing something purely physical, I often want to keep my brain occupied at the same time. I spent a couple of hours on Sunday folding wedding invites, tying bits of ribbon around them and adding teensy little adhesive flowers. To make this a little less crushingly dull, I listened to some business podcasts that I'd been meaning to get to for ages.
If you've got something mundane and physical to get through, find a low-energy mental activity to go with it.
Multitasking doesn't have to mean doing two things at once. It can be one action which impacts on you in multiple ways.
So, let's say you go for a twenty minute walk every day before sitting down to work. This means:
You're productively using time when you're still revving up for the day
You're getting some exercise
You're mulling over the day ahead and planning what really needs to be done
You might play squash with a friend, and get exercise along with social time. You might read a book which is both entertaining and informative. Don't compromise for the sake of squashing two purposes into one activity (if you can't concentrate on your work out while listening to a podcast, then do them separately) – but if all else is equal, pick something which has multiple benefits for you.
When You Multitask, Do It Right
My fiancÃ© has exams at the moment, so I'm doing more cooking and housework type tasks than usual. I work from home, and like Thursday Bram, I appreciate the freedom this gives me to sort out chores during the day:
I routinely have a couple of things going at once: I work from home, which means I handle household chores along with my work for clients. When I get up to stretch, I often put in a load of laundry or start some baking ”” fresh chocolate chip cookies are the best part of working at home.
(Thursday Bram, Is Multi-Tasking Really as Evil as It Seems? on Constructively Productive) However ... over the past few months, I've realised that there are a few ways to make multitasking less of a pain.
Set a Timer
I am very prone to putting food in the oven or clothes in the washing machine, only to get caught up in answering emails and blog comments.
This is great for my inbox, but less great for edible meals and clean clothing...
What I've found works is to set a timer. If I know the washing will be done in an hour's time, I can set a reminder. Then I can forget about it till that alarm goes off. (I'm using e.gg.timer at the moment, because it's incredibly simple.)
If I'm going to multitask, I need a routine. If I'm trying out a new recipe for the first time, it's not a good opportunity to try to tidy my desk simultaneously.
With any task that has multiple steps, especially if you don't do it on such a regular basis that it's second nature, it helps to write them down.
Make a checklist of what you need to do when you publish a new blog post, or send an invoice. Jot down the timings for your favourite meals. Keep a list of weekly tasks to keep on top of business administration.
Don't assume that you'll just remember everything: if your attention is split between a couple of different tasks, you're likely to miss a step.
Don't Get Distracted
Finally, this might seem odd advice in a piece on multitasking, but don't get distracted.
When you're focused on one single task, it's easy to know what you should be doing (even if your concentration does slip). You're writing that chapter. You're learning that new song. You're clearing your emails in order. And you're probably staying in one physical place.
When you're switching between two tasks, it's much easier to get caught up doing something entirely unrelated. Your timer goes off, so you get up from your desk to take the laundry out of the washer, but when you put it in the dryer, you notice that letter you were going to post, so you pop out with the letter, and then you sit down at your computer, but you decide to check Twitter first, and then you click on a link, and ... pretty soon, your whole day's disappeared into a string of unrelated and low-impact tasks.
There are lots of ways for distraction to creep in when you're multitasking. Resist. Stick to juggling two or three balls, not ten. You're much less likely to drop them all.
Do you find multi-tasking a necessity, and even a help? What works for you?