We need to slow down, so we can speed up.
Good planning, preloading and deliberately switching between tasks. Is efficient and increases creativity. It leaves more time for the unforeseen and finding inspiration.
Multitasking is viewed as everything from a requirement to a wasteful habit.
I believe it is a direct way to do less with more.
We must move away from doing or focusing on multiple activities at the time. And instead focus on one, for as long as we have energy and can add value to it.
Then learn to put it aside, work on one of the many other things we have prioritised, or take a break. And return to the previous task later – with renewed energy.
One thing at the time, focused and dedicated. For as long as we enjoy it and can move it forward.
We have multiple programs and screens open on our work computers at the same time. Swapping between them, answering chat messages while writing emails to customers. Playing games in-between trying to formulate the next bullet point for a status meeting. Our social media feeds prodding us to engage – constantly.
. . . We bring our work home, so we can spend time with the family for dinner and a bit of play time before the children’s bedtime. Then resume our work late evenings. But often we keep watching “something” on TV, and drag the work out by hours – not getting enough sleep. And we go to work the next day, with a little less creative energy – so we bring our work home with us . . .
We watch TV and talk and chat and check the internet – all at the same time. Walk down the street, sit in the bus, train and in cafés – with our faces buried in a few inches of LED screen.
Our senses have evolved, to enable us to observe and experience everything around us. High bandwidth eyesight, perceptive hearing, smell, temperature, what we taste, how we move.
It’s important for our cultural understanding. That we see other people’s world through their eyes. But equally important that we lift our eyes – and see our own world, everything and everyone evolving around us. Taking in and committing people and culture to memory. As it happens everywhere around us, every day.
Listening to music while you work, or having a movie running in the background, can be a great way to ‘distract’ your brain from yourself.
It can be classic, rock, jazz, hip-hop, RnB, techno, Breakbeats… anything and everything that fuels your creative powers and makes you happy.
With a comfortable pair of headphones. You can block out noise, and people around you, to better concentrate for a couple of hours.
I do recommend listening to music you know well, or movies you’ve seen 5+ times and know by heart. Let it be a pleasant and comfortably well-known soundscape. So it glides in the background.
Other times, when brain storming or “pumping out” creative ideas. A lively upbeat soundtrack might be the best inspiration.
Those who work and concentrate best in a quiet and distraction free environment. Should of course stick with that.
In fact. Most of us need a mix of both, depending on what we’re working on. It’s well worth a bit of time and effort, knowing how to best create those spaces for ourselves. Particularly in a world increasingly filled with attention seeking distractions.
We all have to accept and live with a certain amount of ‘having many things to do’ at the same time. It can be difficult to prioritise, and accept that we will miss out on some things and experiences. Our private lives and work pulling in opposite directions.
Some believe that the ability to multitask is an absolute necessity. It’s almost the right way to do your job and live your life. We use it as a batch of honour – and a veil to cover for being collectively distracted.
This is reinforced by todays social media, and short form communication we have pervasively adopted from it. We are shooting 10 word messages and emails back and forth. Prodding us to constantly check our phones for the next bits and pieces. Rather than moving forward by significant cohesive steps.
We have somehow decided. That because the younger generations prefer to chat and stay connected with short messages. They are somehow not capable of, can’t focus and aren’t interested in proper communication. A gross under-appreciation of their intelligence, abilities and talent.
Certain jobs require periods of multitasking. Ask a PA or an ER nurse – and they will tell you.
But they are actually not multitasking. They are deeply focused on one task at the time. Each task involving multiple processes, variables and observations. And they are extremely good at compartmentalising them. As are many others with similar types of work rhythms.
When driving a car for 30 minutes. You make thousands of observations, hundreds of decisions – and hopefully no major mistakes.
You are, and should be, fully focused on driving, pedestrians, traffic patterns, speed limits, school zones. . .
Not texting, putting on make-up, checking news or social feeds. Or any other forms of multitasking.
Wether driving a car, your bicycle, walking or working. You should be as observant, and make well informed decisions.
Fully focused on one task at the time.
And stop when you can no longer concentrate.
Most jobs and activities we engage in. Involves several inputs, observations, monitoring multiple variables, related research, impromptu meetings, phone calls etc.
These elements logically goes into completing one or more efforts. That combined creates the value and experience we aim for. Each can be completed and delivered to the next person or team.
If you begin drifting into something else, as you work through each effort. You’ve most likely run out of inspiration, energy, or lack something you need to proceed. And you should decide to switch to a different task.
Or take a break, play a game – not as something you need to hide. Play to have fun !
Switch to serial-tasking
Multitasking is only good – for anything, if you are in control of it. If you use it to your advantage, and not being controlled by it.
Most people, from teenager and older, can concentrate for 20-30 minutes on a single activity. When motivated and having clear purpose. Few can concentrate for up to 45 minutes.
Computers can only multitask if they have multiple separate processors. Each capable of executing pieces of code, without knowing or considering their context or connections. They are serial-tasking. The individual processor is not doing multiple things at the same time.
Humans are certainly not computers. Our amazing brain is capable of handling significantly more complex problems than any computer in existence. Regardless of how many processors it has.
We can comprehend abstract ideas, incomplete information and scenarios. Incorporate distant childhood memories and dreams. We consider how people around us feel and react – not as statistics and algorithms, but as humans.
Exactly because we are emotionally invested. Influenced by how we feel about ourselves, and how we believe others see us. Plus combined pressure from juggling work and personal lives. We should approach it all with some structure, and a way to take control of our own time.
During your day. You can use serial-tasking as a means to clear your head. Get unstuck and let your brain do problem solving without you interfering. It will help you progress on multiple fronts – also when you’re waiting for others or otherwise have a break in the flow.
Serial-tasking is not about lining up a never ending row of tasks to perform. But having a number of alternatives we can shift to when we run out of inspiration, energy, information… or need a much deserved break. It’s a better chance for more days with at least one thing panning out well. Where you’d have possibly been stuck in one problem.
One significant difference
It could be argued that serial-tasking is the same as multitasking.
That attempting to move away from a way of doing, that exists as a single word in the dictionary is futile and simply splitting hairs. We know and understand that it means.
You’ll say that multitasking, is simply handling multiple priorities and keeping many balls in the air. And it’s true – that is what it is. But handling and doing them concurrently, at the same time – simultaneously. That’s neither productive, efficient or conducive to reducing stress.
Serial-tasking is a deliberate approach. Slowing down – so we can speed up.
Plan for it
Your key is having a clear image of what you want to achieve. A well maintained task list, detailing what it requires to get there, and knowing your cores that support these efforts.
Knowing what you want to do – or need to, and how to do it, is of course essential.
How you prioritise, and the rhythm you work in. Will significantly influence how each day feels, and your success rate. And there’s no one way to do it. It’s personal to each one of us, how we best work and plan our time.
The time intervals you work best with – wether 20, 25 or 35 minutes. And they can vary morning and afternoon or during the week.
Efforts that require quiet concentration or outside inspiration. Meetings and teamwork, outside partners and customers. All of which you should carefully place where they best fit into your rhythm, or you can best deliver the most value to others.
The amount of time that’s fixed by outside requirements, vary greatly for each of us. Some have very little time they can dispose of. Making it even more important to use it well.
The remaining time you can loosely plan ahead. Being prepared to change things around as other needs surface, or you decide to re-prioritise. Flexibility is a strength you gain from planning.
I suggest you fill your days ahead. Without leaving time for spontaneous activities, experimentation or research. Unless it’s part of your overall efforts. If you plan for it – you’re likely to fill that time with ‘something’. It’s much better that you decide to take the time when you need it or feel like making a change.
Preloading is another important tool.
Read statuses and updates well in advance of meetings and let it simmer through other activities. You won’t act or reply on instinct, and you will have a more rounded view entering a meeting.
Update others well in advance, so they can better deliver what you need.
Plan ahead – loosely and continuously. It creates time for you.
If listening to music makes your day better, lighter and more inspired. Go at it. In fact, those comfortable low volume headphones can help to isolate you a bit from surroundings that can distract. And create a space for yourself where you can concentrate.
Taking breaks is important – it cannot be said enough. It can be anything from taking a short walk outside, getting water or coffee, doing smaller tasks in-between sessions on your main activity that day, walking over to speak with a colleague.
If you’re blankly staring at your screen, unable to move the ball forward on solving a problem or your brain storming session has stalled. Then switch, or take a break.
Taking a break and coming back to the same task can be great if the pause sparked a new idea, thought, a possible road forward.
But most often. Actively switching to a different task – whether related or in a completely different area, is the best approach. You need to ‘short circuit’ or disrupt your brain pattern – and let it work its magic. While you do something entirely different.
However you plan your week, how you inspire and disrupt yourself. Do it deliberately.
Invite timely interruptions
You should want people to interrupt you.
When they do. It’s an indication that you are doing good work they need, and you have knowledge and experience that’s useful and valuable to others.
Some times they will interrupt you about what you didn’t do, or need to improve on. But as you get better at planning and preloading, it will be limited.
It’s important we communicate as direct as possible. Walking those 20 meters, skip two floors down, or get on a two minute video call. Easily replaces several emails and multiple chat messages. It makes a big difference.
Being interrupted and returning to your previous task is not multitasking. It is simply an interruption. Unless you’re in the midst of an emergency, always be open to and welcome interruptions.
Enter planned activities in your shared schedule. People can see when you’re busy, and what you intend to focus on. Those you work with can see which part of your combined effort it is, and can provide information and updates you may need and benefit from.
Some resort to all manner of ways of signalling they are busy, need to focus or have a quiet moment. Looking grim and closed off on purpose. Figurines turned in- or outwards, red and green beer coasters… deep sighs and puffing sounds when approached. All of which are understandable if you need a break. But it can make you appear unapproachable, and will lessen your own ability to get help from others.
It will take less time helping people with a smile, than being frustrated about it and getting back into your previous focus. It’s ok to kindly ask them, to check your schedule next time.
Consider the ever present requirement in job descriptions and advertisements. To be ‘a great multitasker’.
I can hardly imagine a job today, that doesn’t require managing multiple priorities and requirements. Understanding the intended outcomes, all its interactions, the cultures you engage with. Work in all its ways is complex.
Instead. Focus on planning, prioritising, concentrating on the task at hand – and knowing when to stop. People who make an effort to understand and engage with everyone in their value chain, what they need to deliver better outcomes. And thereby reduce multitasking to an absolute minimum.
Multitasking is a symptom – more than a skill.
No need to label it
I’m not suggesting you begin telling yourself, or others, that you are ‘serial-tasking’. You will be getting some quizzical looks from the un-initiated. And we don’t need more buzzwords, or lingo to explain how we work and get things done.
Instead. Use the mindset for better awareness and planning. Knowing when to stop an activity and deliberately shift to another. Find patterns that will inspire and feed into each other.
Having multiple activities, tasks and experiences loosely planned ahead of you. Helps your brain prepare. It’ll work its creative magic in the background, so it can deliver when you go to work on what’s next.
It creates mental space and actual time for the unforeseen. As boring as planning sound. It is more exciting, and a healthier way to live – than constantly scrambling to find time for the things you want to do.
Switching between activities and work tasks is absolutely fine. And the more we can be in control of how and when we make the switches, the less stress we will experience.
With better insights into what our regular activities entail and require – our cores. Better understanding of how we work and interact with our surrounding partners, teams and people. The better we become at linking meaningful and logically connected efforts together.
It leaves significantly more room and energy for spontaneous and creative challenges.
Give yourself time to get into it. Moving away from mental and physical multitasking – it’s a worthwhile change effort.
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