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How (and Why) We Should Stop Multitasking

Always Busy, Rarely Productive

Every year, as the school year winds down, I recall that the verb “winding down” is utterly inappropriate. It more often skitters to a crash, having reached terminal velocity somewhere around the end of April. The grading that I could stay on top of all year, the planning for next year, advisory meetings, web development, the reading I have planned for the summer, preparing for grad school which starts two days after school ends—they all are crashing together and testing my time-management skills like never before.

This year, though, in spite of being as busy as ever (who ever claims *not* to be as an adult?), I’ve found myself handling it with lower stress levels than normal. Part of this is because I’ve actually built up some habits and shed a few bad truisms, having realized that they aren’t true. The primary habit I’ve been practicing for years is how to stop multitasking.

Mostly I’ve attacked multitasking in my life and tried hard to become a monotasker. While I still leave things on the backburner (is a multi-tabber a multi-tasker?), I try to work through one task at a time.

I Can’t Multitask…and You Can’t Either

I always thought, “Oh yea, that guy admits that he can’t multi-task, but it doesn’t apply to me! Look at me multi-tasking! I have ten (20? 30?) tabs open and I’m getting SO much done!” In a TEDx talk I watched recently, the creator of project-management software compares work with sleep—both are terrible when interrupted! When I finally started tracking my time, it turned out I wasn’t getting much done at all with that time that I had been using so effectively. Why? Because we live in an age of distraction and we confuse distraction with multi-tasking. It just reminds me of the hyperbole-and-a-half meme:

Unfortunately, I wasn’t really doing all the things. I was doing parts of the things some of the time, and running down rabbit-trails and yellow-brick roads! This quickly turned into, when I was honest with myself, this:

So, I resolved to get my flow back and mono-task (I’m doing it right now!). I also encourage my students to do the same, and control the distractions in their lives from a young age. I didn’t do this, and have been paying for it for the last several years.
The interesting thing, though, is that scientific research has been talking for years about the growing number of distractions and they’re enervating effect on good work. Check out the articles in the footnotes if you’re still unconvinced.

Environment or Habits? Nature or Nuture? Both

Those of you who know me know that I went to an all-boys boarding school for high-school that kept a strict schedule, had one computer with internet access available for two hours a day, and had no contact with the outside world from Sunday night through Friday afternoon. As you can imagine, I was an extremely productive and diligent high school student. In my own mind, I thought I had forged habits of productivity and focus in a workshop of my own virtue. As it turns out, the life of a monastery is conducive (surprise!) to two things—ora et labora (prayer and work! motto of Benedictines everywhere since A.D. 529).
Well, I arrived at college and every distraction came flooding back—people, clubs, commitments, majors. My sanguine personality immediately shed all the good “habits” I thought I had and I’ve been trying to recover them ever since.  Being a teacher has helped a bit, but becoming a father has been the absolute best thing to focus my time and energies and force me to reforge these good habits of time management as quickly as possible. So, what have I been doing?
First, I admitted that there was a problem. Multitasking was not productive and actually caused more stress and anxiety.
Second, I examined my current habits and my working environment and tweaked a few things (see the articles below for more information than I’ll give here).

Ditching the Distractions: Advice I TRY to follow

I turn off my phone (I downgraded to a dumb-phone for a while).

I don’t let any app buzz me unless it’s my wife or my calendar telling me to move on to the next task.

I close the email tab and don’t have email on my phone (Tim Ferris made this cool more recently, but Cal Newport recommended it first and I have to re-assert this habit once every few months). It’s tough but I can do it. I just drag the mouse to the little x symbol right at the top. That’s it. No one ever sends (or should send) emails so urgent as to be life-threatening.

I unplugged from all social media. I don’t even have it to promote my podcast! I deleted my Facebook in spite of the fact that I was, sadly, an early adopter when it came to my campus. I’ve never tweeted and now have seen the rise and fall of so many Social Media attempts that I see their futility.

The TEDx talk I referred to earlier mentions two problems in the workplace: meetings and managers. Thankfully, as a teacher, the vast majority of my meetings are with students (one-to-one) or parents (two-to-one) and are often quite productive. My school limits department meetings to once or twice a year. I tend to go directly to the decision-maker when something needs to happen on the school website (for which I’m the webmaster). The TEDx presenter proposes some interesting solutions in the last minutes of the video. They’re not relevant to what we’re discussing here, so I’ll leave you to explore them further.

Clarify the Goals

Tracking my time for an entire month gave me a much clearer idea of two things: transitions and teleology. I just wanted alliteration there, but allow me to explain. Transitions take time and I never gave them time. I didn’t give myself time to walk to my car or classroom, or get organized before leaving from work. Tracking my time made me much more honest about how much time I need for a morning routine (45 minutes), and how much time I need to leave open for transition. About 20% of my schedule is open to interruption and flexibility. As a father of three, this flexibility has been massively important for my own sanity as well as my wife’s.

The second was to find a good way of clarifying what I’ll do with the time I have. In the classroom, that’s pretty cut and dry as I’ve been planning my in-class time for a while. Outside of the classroom, I had (seemingly) 10 things at a time calling for my attention—phone calls to return, emails to triage, students to advise, meetings with colleagues, updating the website, planning, writing, etc. I blocked out specific chunks of my week for each of these activities. This clarity allowed me to be honest about what I could (and should) say yes to and what I had to say no to in order to keep my standards in my current obligations.

Lastly, the task had to be limited in size, scope, and time. Todoist, a great free to-do list app, helped me time tasks, break big tasks into smaller ones, and have the flexibility where I wasn’t re-writing a list every day. Now when my phone buzzes, I know I need to be transitioning to something else. I’m not worried about email (that’s scheduled now once a day and I try not to touch it outside of that time period) and there’s no nagging text or social media update that I just have to read. They occur silently in the background, and I check them when I decide it’s time for that task.

Balance Energy, Ability, and Difficulty

This is right up there with the advice written above the Temple at Delphi: γνῶθι σαυτόν (Know thyself!). I had to figure out the difficulty of each task, the skills that I needed to apply to it, and the energy level I needed to complete it in a timely fashion. For example, after teaching four classes in a row, I’m not ready to shift immediately to a one-to-one mentoring session with a student. I’m already pretty tired of being on my feet and in front of people. I need some time to unwind.

So recently, I decided that I’d put some prayer time in there. This has helped immensely. I’m blessed to have a chapel on campus, but I’m sure I could find a quiet room if I worked elsewhere. I come out of my fourth class in a row, leave everything on my desk except one book (Bible or spiritual reading), and go to the chapel for 10-15 minutes. It’s a perfect recharge in the middle of my day that allows me to have the energy and focus to give my best to my advisees later.

I will end with the fact that I do actually multitask still in certain situations. I listen to podcasts when I exercise, mow the lawn, or wash dishes. I pray while I drive. But in general, the trend is that one of the activities—exercising or driving—is a great deal more automatic and mindless. In the end, I’ll leave you with this quotation from the NPR article linked in the footnotes:

The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits. They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking.


TEDx talk on Uninterrupted Work
A .pdf of a talk given on finding “Optimal Work Flow
A summary of a study on the long-term effects of multitasking
A summary of Charlie Munger’s advice on multitasking
On Laptops in the Classroom (just another distraction)
NPR on the Myth of Multitasking
Psychology Today on The True Cost of Multitasking

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