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No wonder it was so difficult to keep my ideas in order. My mind was constantly jumping around from one topic to the other, never maintaining a single train of thought for more than a few moments. My female readers might contend that my distraction has to do with my gender and that a woman would be able to keep track of multiple inputs without getting frazzled. However, some new research in the field of attention would suggest otherwise.
The Case Against Multi-Tasking
Psychology Today reviews a study demonstrating that people are actually pretty bad at multi-tasking even on simple tasks. Subjects asked to name pitches (high or low) at the same time as identifying a letter did fairly poorly when the two tasks occurred at the same time. Even more interesting, another study reviewed found that people who habitually multi-task were actually worse at dividing their attention. They had a decreased ability to filter out information irrelevant to the task and hand.
Another study demonstrated that the brain slows down in the transition from one task to another. Thus, in doing more different things, you actually take more time than you would if you simply chunked your tasks together; it is more efficient to do one thing straight through and finish it before moving on, than trying to do both things at the same time. In fact, the very concept of multi-tasking is actually an illusion. While the brain is capable of processing various tasks simultaneously subconsciously, the conscious mind is only capable of giving attention to one thing at a time. What we call multi-tasking is actually very rapid switching between mini-tasks.
If we think of our awareness as a single stream of consciousness, we start to see that by shifting our attention back and forth, we experience an incoherent stream, kind of like a TV set that keeps jumping channels. It takes time and energy for our thoughts to shift from one task to the other, and the result is decreased effectiveness and lowered efficiency. It will take more time to do two tasks simultaneously than to do one at a time, especially if those two tasks both require conscious attention and even a minimal level of quality output.
Distracting Habits to Avoid
So it should be clear that we owe it to ourselves to try and simplify our work habits. Instead of checking our e-mail as we work on that school assignment, we'd be better off shutting our e-mail off until we finish the paper. This will enable us to give our full attention to our writing, thus producing something of better quality in less time. Do one thing at a time, and do it well.
Some habits I'm trying to break in terms of work efficiency:
- Reading while eating: I have a tendency to read while I eat. This usually results in me not tasting my food and even indigestion. I also get more out of my reading when I set aside a specific time to read. It saves me having to find my place every time I go to take a bite and then come back to the page. Thus, I read faster and pay better attention.
- Keeping e-mail open: I used to keep a browser tab with my e-mail open whenever I was online. The result was that I would check my e-mail every time I took a breath in my writing. If a new e-mail came in, I would stop whatever I was working on to answer it. Even if I didn't answer the new e-mail, I would get distracted by it and start thinking about it instead of my current project. Just because I you're online doesn't mean you need to read e-mail. Only keep open the tabs you need for whatever you're working on right now.
- Checking e-mail first thing: Often, when I sit down at my computer, my purpose is not to check e-mail. It is to write, read something, do research, or play Starcraft II. However, I had this habit of checking e-mail first, saying I'd just get it out of the way and then get on with whatever it is I wanted to do. This frequently led to me following up on e-mails and never getting around to my original purpose. Then, I'd realize that instead of getting important work done, I was just wasting time on busywork. I never got to do what I wanted, simply because I never made time for it. The solution to this has been to set aside specific times to check e-mail, and to use my computer purposefully.
- Having conversations while doing work: Just because someone calls me doesn't mean I have to answer right away. If I'm in the middle of something, I've found I have better conversations (leading to better relationships) when I finish whatever it is I'm doing and call the person back. Trying to work on something while talking means it takes me longer to get my work done, and I'm never fully engaged in the conversation, which other people pick up on. Similarly, I'll ask people to wait until I finish my current project if they need to talk to me, unless it's important. This also asserts that I value my time, and implies that I want to give my full attention to my conversation partner, indicating I also value their time.
- Taking indeterminate breaks: Despite the problems with shifting attention, it is important to take occasional breaks to let your mind refresh. The problem comes when the breaks end up taking more time than they should and when you let them bleed into new projects. I found I had a tendency to take breaks from my writing by checking my Google Reader feeds, which would draw me into looking up something unrelated. Before I knew it, I had wasted an hour when I only wanted my break to last fifteen minutes. I'd never get any work done. The solution: set a definite time limit for your break, and try to find something that lets you relax without presenting opportunities for new distractions. A short walk or stretch is a great alternative, or a light snack.
Just being aware of these bad habits has helped me become a lot more productive. Setting aside a distinct and specific time to work, during which all distractions are eliminated, helps get me in the mindset of focusing on my projects. Exercising this kind of focus does take discipline, but the payoff is huge and gives you time to relax and really enjoy it.
Do you have any other strategies for getting work done? Please share in the comments.