Monday, October 4, 2010

5 Small Steps | Part 1: Avoid Multitasking

For far too long, multitasking has been touted as a positive. It is often listed as a "skill" on résumés, companies encourage it amongst their employees, and there is no shortage of self-help books and gurus who claim that the ability to manage several tasks at once will make you superhuman.


Whether you subscribe to creation or take a more Darwinian approach, the truth is revealed through simple logic: If human beings were meant to be adroit multi-taskers, we'd be inherently good at it.

As it is, we're not.

Don't believe me? Try texting while driving.

In his book The Myth of Multitasking: How "Doing It All" Gets Nothing Done, author Dave Crenshaw prefers the term "switch-tasking," where people are actually moving between two or more tasks so rapidly that it appears they're doing multiple things at once (think: checking email, chatting on the phone, looking over your son's homework).

The reality, however, is that they are not doing any of these tasks well. At least, not to the point they could be if they focused on one thing at a time.

Sorting Out Your Priorities

The Myth of Multitasking: How "Doing It All" Gets Nothing DoneIf something about that sounds familiar it's because we once learned it in school and, for a long time, it was taught as a rule in both business and politics. It's called prioritizing.

Consider this: Your in-laws are coming to visit and you have two big chores to accomplish before they arrive. First, the bushes lining your walkway need to be trimmed. They've been out of control for weeks, and it's just embarrassing.  Second, you never quite got around to painting the guest bedroom after last year's remodel, so that's also on your To Do list.

Now, no sane person would go outside and trim just one shrub, then come inside and paint just one wall, only to repeat the process until both chores were finally done. The very idea is laughable. You'd be far more prone to mistakes, not to mention physically and mentally exhausted.

Oddly enough, people seem content to do this with smaller, less labor-intensive jobs, thinking their mind is capable of switch-tasking well enough to keep up. These same folks are also guzzling caffeine or shooting energy drinks by mid-afternoon.

No wonder more and more experts say that multitasking could be hazardous to your health!

In his book, Crenshaw relates that it's perfectly fine to do "background tasking," where you combine one task that needs your attention (eg. talking on the phone) with more perfunctory activities, like sweeping the floor. Not only does this come naturally for most of us, it doesn't result in the same mental fatigue that switch-tasking does.

So what do you do if you have lots of important tasks to complete during the day? Again, it all comes down to priorities.

Where Have All the Leaders Gone?Lee Iacocca, former CEO of Chrysler, famously admonished people to "know what's important, and then give it all you've got." Wise words, especially considering the fact that many people credit Iacocca with singlehandedly saving Chrysler from financial ruin and a poor public image. Indeed, he's regarded as one of the greatest business leaders of all time.

And This Applies To Me How?

By now you're probably wondering, As a writer, how does this apply to me? I'm not trying to run a car company, or be a self-help champion. I just want to make a living as a writer.

Fair enough. Our goals are aligned! Here's a few quick tips on how you can avoid multitasking and improve prioritizing, all while staying on the road to becoming a full-time author.

  1. Set the Time - You can't TiVo real life. It happens in the now. So set aside specific times each day, or each week, for developing your craft. Stick to it, but be reasonable if you have others in your life who depend on your presence.
  2. Set the Expectation - Let family, friends, and colleagues know that you are regularly unavailable during these times. Don't worry, no one will consider you rude or aloof. Remember, when people leave a message they're not expecting an immediate response. Unless your day job has you on-call, you don't have to go so far as to set up a new voicemail greeting or email auto-responders, either. Just casually let them know. For example, my clients know that I devote Thursday mornings to community volunteer work, but that I'll diligently return calls and emails after lunch.
  3. Set the Mood - Do your writing in a comfortable setting, away from potential distractions. If you use paper and pen, you're probably ahead of the game here. If you write on a computer or laptop, close your email and your web browser. Facebook and Twitter updates will still be there when you're done. Personally I queue up the "Relax" playlist on my iPod, grab some tea or a bottled water, and sink into the comfy chaise lounge in my bedroom. If the weather's nice, I might open the window. However you achieve writer's zen, or catharsis, or inspiration, that's the environment you want. Make it happen!

Be sure to follow my blog, or check back soon for the next installment of 5 Small Steps. And please, post your comments and feedback below. Are these tips working for you? Or not? Let me know!

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